History of Voter Suppression Laws in the United States

By Bryce Wachtell (PO ’21)

The right to vote forms the bedrock of democracy, but even the foundational principle of enfranchisement remains a topic of contention. The 2018 midterm elections have resurfaced the debate on voting rights along mostly partisan lines, with Republicans advocating for ballot integrity and Democrats pushing for accessibility, especially for marginalized groups. A historical mosaic of laws and court cases dating back centuries laid the groundwork for the present moment, in which voter suppression has resurfaced as a pivotal issue.

Following the establishment of the United States, it is well known that mostly white, land-owning men over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. Over the following century, land ownership was slowly eliminated as a requirement for voting, but it was not until well into the 19th century that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments expanded voting rights beyond white citizens. However, Jim Crow laws enacted soon thereafter effectively invalidated these expanded rights for several more decades by imposing barriers like near-impossible literacy tests.

While racial minorities were fighting for legitimate voting rights, at the turn of the 20th century, women’s suffrage became a reality with the 19th amendment.  But like Jim Crow, many reactionary laws (meant to undermine the new change) still de facto barred poor and non-white women from voting in practice.

After a decade of civil unrest and ideological shift, lawmakers began dismantling these barriers to the polls with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its various subsidiary legal actions. With substantive legislative language (found mostly in the constitution) to provide the fuel for voting rights litigation, judicial challenges to disenfranchisement efforts became widespread.

For instance, the 1966 case Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections provided the legal bedrock for the elimination of the poll tax. The Supreme Court reversed their previous decision in Breedlove v. Suttles, positing that one’s ability (or lack thereof) to pay a poll tax has no bearing on their eligibility to vote.  Then just a few years following Harper, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, broadening the population of those eligible to vote by many million.

As the United States entered the 21st century, a range of barriers to voting rights had been theoretically eliminated. However, since 2010, practical access to voting has resurfaced as an issue, with political advocates across both parties looking to alter the recent momentum toward restrictive, some say suppressive, voting policies.

In 2011, Texas enacted a strict ID law which required voters present a passport, driver’s license, or similar identification card at the polls. Three years later, after countless legal battles, the Supreme Court issued approval of the law at the last minute in time for 2014 election. Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented, positing that the cost and inconvenience of such documents effectively barr about 600,000 (mostly black and Hispanic) registered Texan voters from the polls. Supporters of the law said it mitigates voter fraud by ensuring those who cast a ballot are Texan citizens.

Similarly, just last June, in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s controversial voter purge law.. The state now requires that registered voters who fail to cast a ballot for two election cycles (four year) are automatically stripped of their registration, unless they confirmed their address via postcard. Along partisan lines, the court ruled Ohio’s law constitutional. Like in Texas, those disillusioned Ohio voters who are purged from the ballot and effected by the law tend to be poorer, non-white Democrats.  

As millions of Americans head to the polls on Tuesday, some will be no doubt be turned away because of an onslaught of regulations of varying strictness that have been enacted over the past eight years. To examine the development of voting rights throughout U.S. history is to pull back the curtain on a complex, meandering narrative of legislation and litigation. The issue of voting accessibility, once thought to be settled for good, has resurfaced across the nation, with some shifting toward ease while others move toward security. The legacy of recent voting rights legislation and the prospect of similar legislation to come hangs in the balance of this coming election.

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