How Voter Suppression Works

By: Dave Roos

History of Voter Suppression in the U.S.

The history of voter suppression in the U.S. is really the history of voting rights in the U.S. To begin, it's important (and surprising) to note that the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly include a right to vote [source:]. In fact, only members of the House of Representatives were elected "by the people" according to the 1776 Constitution. Although the 17th Amendment enabled the direct election of U.S. senators, we still don't directly elect our president; technically, that's up to the Electoral College.

The original version of the Constitution and Bill of Rights left it entirely up to the states to determine who constituted "the people," and therefore had a right to vote at all. At first, only white men — and freed African-American slaves in four states — who owned property were allowed to vote, then states slowly began to drop the property requirement, opening it up to all white males and some African-American males by 1850 [source: Keyssar]. All women, non-African-American minorities and many non-Christian religious groups were denied the franchise.


After the brief Reconstruction period following the Civil War, in which freed slaves earned the right to vote and hold office, there was a sharp political shift in the South. Even though the 15th Amendment formally extended the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" in 1870, newly elected conservative Democrats — known as Dixiecrats — began to impose a series of laws in 1877 designed to suppress the black vote.

These Jim Crow voting laws included requirements to pass literacy tests, nearly impossible for uneducated former slaves. Other states instituted poll taxes, a financial burden that many poor African-American (and whites) were either unable or unwilling to pay. Some precincts even held "whites only" primaries in direct opposition to federal law. Attempts to break or protest Jim Crow laws often met with deadly retribution. In fact, the intimidation and suppression campaign was so successful that only 3 percent of voting-age African-American southerners were registered to vote in 1940 [source:American Civil Liberties Union].

Although women were finally extended the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the federal government finally eradicated Jim Crow voting laws in the southern U.S. The Voting Rights Act explicitly banned any "test or device" to qualify voters on the basis of literacy, education or fluency in English [source: Department of Justice]. Poll taxes weren't banned until 1966, when the Supreme Court found Virginia's poll taxes to be unconstitutional [source: Department of Justice].

Unfortunately, the history of voter suppression didn't end in the 1960s. On the next page, we'll list a few of the most popular methods of voter suppression — many of which are still used today.