How Voter Suppression Works

Methods of Voter Suppression
Voters in Pittsburgh, Penn., prepare to cast their ballots on November 2, 2004.
Voters in Pittsburgh, Penn., prepare to cast their ballots on November 2, 2004.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Intimidation has been a favorite tactic of voter suppression since the early days of Jim Crow. While open hostility and violence might have been the norm in the post-Reconstruction South, modern methods of intimidation are usually more subtle.

The Republican National Committee came under fire in the early 1980s when it sponsored the creation of a group called the National Ballot Security Task Force to patrol polling stations in search of voter fraud. The task force, staffed by off-duty police officers armed with loaded service revolvers and wearing blue armbands, was sued for steering black voters away from polling stations in New Jersey and forced to disband [source: Robbins]. In 2009, The Department of Justice sued members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (a group unaffiliated with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s) for brandishing a "police-style baton" to intimidate voters outside a Philadelphia polling station during the 2008 presidential election [source: Department of Justice]. And in 2012, advertising company Clear Channel Outdoor took down billboards in Ohio and Wisconsin noting the criminal consequences of voter fraud after public accusations of voter intimidation [source: Palmer].

Disinformation is another hugely popular tactic for suppressing votes in a target population. In the 2008 elections, Democrats in Nevada received robo-calls informing them that they could vote on November 5 — a day after the election — to avoid long lines. Hispanic voters in Nevada received similar messages saying that they could vote by phone [source: Freeman]. Voters in Lake County, Ohio, received official-looking mail stating that voters who had registered to vote through Democratic-leaning organizations would be barred from the 2008 election. And Michigan's Secretary of State had to fight a phone-based disinformation campaign telling absentee voters to mail their ballots to the wrong address [source: Zernike].

While intimidation and disinformation are recognized examples of voter suppression, other methods are much more controversial. A strict voter ID law in Indiana, for example, has the blessing of the Supreme Court, yet the Justice Department has moved to block similar laws in Texas and South Carolina under accusations that the laws "(deny) or (abridge) the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group" [source: Chebium].

Similarly, a number of Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws barring convicted felons — even those who have served their time — from ever voting again. Other states have tightened the window for absentee, overseas and early voting, and banned same-day voter registration. Some states want to require voters to provide a proof of citizenship. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claim these laws have one purpose: to restrict and suppress the ability of minority, disabled and elderly voters from casting their vote [source:American Civil Liberties Union]. Supporters of these laws argue that increased restrictions only result in fairer, cleaner elections.

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