What Is Voter Suppression?

One of the reasons I started The Civics Center was to help high schools get the resources they need to teach students about democracy and how our governmental institutions should work. One issue that can harm our democracy and that needs greater understanding is voter suppression.

Voter suppression can take many different forms and can exist in states controlled by either political party.  

One kind of voter suppression involves efforts to influence political outcomes, not by promoting and organizing around great ideas, but rather by getting voters on the “other side” not to participate equally in the political process. One example of this kind of stop-the-vote suppression occurs when a person in charge of placing voting booths and other supplies on Election Day is a member of one political party and decides not to put an adequate number of functional voting booths in precincts where the residents are likely to vote for candidates from a different party. This kind of action reduces voting because it can cause long lines, especially during presidential elections, and many people give up and go home or have to leave to get to work on time. Another stop-the-vote tactic involves targeting voters on the “other side” of an issue with false or misleading advertising in an effort to get them to stay home. A third stop-the-vote practice occurs when election officials transform the routine practice of updating voting records into an overly aggressive effort to “purge” voters from the rolls who are in fact eligible voters or to falsely accuse eligible voters of being noncitizens or otherwise ineligible.

A different type of voter suppression practice makes it hard for eligible citizens to register to vote.

A different type of voter suppression practice makes it hard for eligible citizens to register to vote. Laws that make voter registration difficult can especially affect young people who move frequently. For example, some states create obstacles to registration for students who live on a college campus, even for students who intend to live in the state after graduating. Other states have special registration rules for voters who need to cast an absentee ballot, which can make it hard for young people who may be away from home temporarily to vote. Some states have strict identification requirements to register. These laws can impact young voters who may not have a required form of ID, especially in states that don’t allow use of a student ID to satisfy the identification requirement. Some states have rules that make it hard for people to hold voter registration drives. Some states don’t allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote while they are still in high school. This means young people have less time to organize with their peers to ensure they are all properly registered before they turn 18. We can refer to all of these rules as “keep out” rules because they are all designed to keep people out of the electoral process and prevent them from becoming voters.

Another type of voter suppression is called “vote dilution.” Vote dilution refers to a system in which the votes of one group are made less powerful or effective than the votes of other groups.

An example of vote dilution relates to the manner in which we define the boundaries of geographic areas from which representatives are elected.  For many governing bodies, we elect one person to represent a particular area or district. It is often possible to draw the lines defining these districts so as to create an advantage for one particular party or group. This can be done by drawing lines that will disperse voters who favor one political party among many different districts where they will not have enough voting power to elect their candidates of choice. It can also be done by concentrating members of one political party into just a few districts, even if, based on their numbers, they could elect many more representatives of their party if they were not so heavily concentrated. In either case, the party that is disadvantaged is unlikely to be able to win a number of seats that corresponds to the number of voters who favor that party.  Their power is therefore “diluted.”

This practice of drawing district lines to the advantage or disadvantage of one political party or another is referred to as political gerrymandering.

This practice of drawing district lines to the advantage or disadvantage of one political party or another is referred to as political gerrymandering. Racial gerrymandering is similar and targets particular races to dilute their voting strength.

There is a fourth voter suppression practice that also hampers our democracy, and that is neglect and inattention. Inattention can have as serious an impact on voting as the other types of voter suppression, but it has not received as much attention from the press. Inattention includes the failure to pass and implement laws and practices that would contribute to the health of our democracy.

California, for example, has a wonderful law that requires every high school to identify a person responsible for distributing voter registration cards to students, but the law does not require that person to actually distribute the cards. Furthermore, many schools do not comply with the law, and many that do comply have not adopted meaningful programs to encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity to register or preregister to vote, to help students understand the mechanics of voting, or to teach them how the political process affects them and how their votes can have an impact on their communities and government. Texas has a similar law regarding distributing voter registration cards to high school students. As in California, however, many Texas schools have not complied with the law, and many more have not realized its full potential.

Beyond voter registration, many communities have simply not made the commitment to give their schools the resources they need to help young people understand the values of how our democratic institutions are designed to function and how young people can have an impact.

Surveys say young people care about gun violence, the environment, equality, and education. If I had one topic to add to the mix, I’d make it support for a healthy democracy, including an end to voter suppression in all its forms. Young people may not be able to act on their own to fix all the different obstacles to voting. But they have more power than anyone else to communicate among themselves and to help their peers appreciate the obstacles that prevent full political participation, how to overcome them, and what it would mean if they did.