How Voter Suppression Works

By: Dave Roos

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.

For lots more information on elections, civil rights and political controversies, explore the links below.

Author's Note: How Voter Suppression Works

It's always shocking for me to read about conditions during the Jim Crow era. As a Northerner, I tend to think that slavery and all of its wretched indignities somehow disappeared immediately after Emancipation. It's hard for me to understand how the legacy of Jim Crow continued for nearly a century, all the way until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Reading about the violent and well-organized suppression of the black vote during Jim Crow helps me understand why not only the African-American community, but those interested in protecting the civil rights of all Americans, respond so passionately to laws could potentially deny the vote to deserving citizens. This will be an interesting election for many reasons. It's my hope that everyone has their fair say.

Related Articles


  • American Civil Liberties Union. "Voter Suppression in America" (May 7, 2012)
  • American Civil Liberties Union. "Voting Rights Act Timeline." March 4, 2005 (May 7, 2012)
  • Berman, Ari. Rolling Stone. "The GOP War on Voting." August 30, 2011 (May 7, 2012)
  • Chebium, Raju. USA Today. "Justice Dept.: S.C. voter ID law violates Voting Rights Act." April 10, 2012 (May 7, 2012)
  • "A Constitutional Right to Vote." (May 7, 2012)
  • "The Legality of Gerrymandering" (May 7, 2012)
  • Freeman, Brian; Field, Michael; and Rodriguez, Raymond. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College. "Voter Suppression: New Hampshire's Response to a National Problem." March 9, 2009 (May 7, 2012) Policy Brief 0809-02.pdf
  • Keysarr, Alexander. The New York Times. "The Strange Career of Voter Suppression." February 12, 2012 (May 7, 2012)
  • National Conference of State Legislatures. "Voter Identification Requirements" (May 7, 2012)
  • Palmer, Kim. "Ohio Voter Fraud Billboards To Be Taken Down, Sponsor Remains Anonymous." Oct. 21, 2012. (Nov. 3, 2016)
  • Robbins, Tom. The New York Times. "Roots of 'Ballot Security': Dead Voters, Party Fears and Shadowy Tactics." October 4, 2011 (May 7, 2012)
  • Stout, David. The New York Times. "Supreme Court Upholds Voter Identification Law in Indiana." April 29, 2008 (May 7, 2012)
  • Tobin, Jonathan S. Commentary. "Voter ID is Not Voter Suppression." February 13, 2012 (May 7, 2012)
  • United States Code. "Title 42 – The Public Health and Welfare; Chapter 20 – Elective Franchise; Subchapter 1A – Enforcement of Voting Rights" (May 7, 2012)
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "History of Federal Voting Rights Laws." (Nov. 3, 2016)
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "Justice Department Seeks Injunction Against New Black Panther Party." January 7, 2009 (May 7, 2012)
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "Voting Rights Act of 1965" (May 7, 2012)
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act." (Nov. 3, 2016)
  • Zernike, Kate and Yardley, William. The New York Times. "Charges of Fraud and Voter Suppression Already Flying." November 1, 2004 (May 7, 2012)