Voter Suppression: A Balancing Act

 /  Feb. 18, 2019, 3:27 p.m.

Polling Place

With every election that passes, the topic of voter suppression gains more attention as an issue worth considering in the minds of Americans. Its coverage in the media has certainly increased, but at this point, the extent to which this genuine problem is being exploited as a weapon that each party uses to accuse each other of fraud must be investigated. The sensationalization of voter rights issues begs the following questions: what form does voter suppression actually take in America, and what are its implications within the grand scheme of American politics?

In many cases, voter suppression occurs in the form of voter purging and questionable procedures surrounding absentee voting, both cases that must be considered in order to fully address why voter suppression happens and how the issue could potentially be solved.

Voter purging has been one of the most prominent examples of voter suppression in recent elections, with incidents increasing by 33 percent nationwide in the last decade. The Elections Managing offices in control of voter registration examine the lists of voters and remove people for reasons such as no longer living in the same voting district or in formation on their voting registration that doesn't match other records. This policy is intended to remove those who are no longer eligible to vote, but studies have shown that in certain cases, those who have been mistakenly removed from the list of registration are not informed, and if they are, it may be too late for them to correct the error in time for election day. It is important to note that voter purging is not inherently a vehicle of voter suppression due to the fact that sometimes records need to be updated in order to limit voter fraud, but in many places, it has been applied with this end in mind. In order to understand when purging becomes suppression, specific cases must be examined.

In certain southern states, such as Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, at least 7 percent of registered voters were purged, a statistic that doesn’t distinguish between those that were rightfully purged and those who were not between 2016 and 2018. Other states such as Indiana, Alabama, and Maine have used an exceedingly faulty system known as Crosscheck, which has been reported to block three hundred legal votes for every double vote prevented. The state of Ohio has employed practices such as interpreting a failure to vote in a single federal election as a sign of relocation. A citizen who fails to vote is then sent a form asking for confirmation of their address, and if there is no response and no activity for two federal elections, the voter is purged. There is the question, however, of whether or not this purging is done in an unbiased way. In Cincinnati, one county removed 27 percent of voters from a poverty-stricken area of the county, but six miles away, in a mostly upper-class, white suburban neighborhood, only 9 percent of voters were purged from the rolls.

More extreme cases have taken place on smaller scales, such as in Sparta, Georgia. In their 2015 mayoral race, the Board of Elections in the county went door to door and inquired about address discrepancies among voters. Their results were heavily influenced by reports given by neighbors which led to 174 voters being purged. At the courtroom hearings, even more names were crossed off the list, and a majority of those individuals were black. This process holds even more weight when one considers that the residents of Sparta were choosing between black and white mayoral candidates. This case is incredibly significant in the overall consideration of the effects of voter purging. The idea that this system can be used to prohibit certain people from voting in order to swing the overall election a certain way is incredibly worrying. The system of voter purging should not be one that can discriminate against eligible American citizens for their class or their race. The fact that in this case, the purging of voters focused heavily on race proves that the system can be used in the same way on a national scale. This can be seen even more in studies that showed that during the 2016 election in Wisconsin, 8 percent of white people’s votes were prevented based on the voter ID law, but 27 percent of African Americans’ votes were prevented under that same law. In both of these cases, legitimate laws surrounding voter purging were misapplied in order to prevent citizens from voting and the more it happens in individual sectors of voting, the more impact it can have overall on the outcome of our elections.

Each of these cases exemplifies where this system of voter purging can fail. It is true that purging voters is a necessary aspect of the voter registration process; otherwise, voter fraud would be a significant issue for reasons such as people changing addresses without informing the elections office, forging signatures on voting documents, etc. However, there is no set standard for how states handle the purging of voters. If each state can control how they do so, then corruption becomes all the more likely within local governments. This version of voter suppression leads to questions about the extent to which this issue falls under the jurisdictions of the federal government or local governments. This tension between the involvement of federal government in this issue has become increasingly evident ever since the Supreme Court overturned a provision in the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to garner approval for any changes they made to voting laws that might affect minorities. This amount of power in the hands of the state is part of the reason that voter purging has become such an issue in recent elections. A more firm stance on these issues from the federal government could change the manner in which voter purging affects voting American citizens as a whole.

The next most prominent manner in which voters are suppressed is through absentee ballot policies and practices. One prominent example of a technique that states can employ is found in Tennessee’s laws surrounding voting restrictions. For example, it is required that first-time voters who registered by mail be present in the state of Tennessee when voting. The issue with this policy is that it excludes those who wish to vote in any Tennessee election, but who were not eligible to vote when they left Tennessee or there was no election to vote in before they left. Perhaps there is some connection to be made with the right-leaning politics of the state, as many college-age individuals leave their states to go to more liberal-leaning schools, and officials may be reluctant to let them affect elections within the state. Many college students who were living outside of the state of Tennessee during the previous midterm election faced this problem.

The state of Michigan has policies similar to these, but its analogous law excludes first-time voters who are over the age of sixty, overseas, or disabled. This policy sets up an interesting comparison to Tennessee’s. The trend of voting in Michigan, in terms of whether it goes red or blue in a given election, varies more than in Tennessee, and because of that, some analysts have referred to Michigan as a purple state. This policy could be a way to shift the votes one way or another, but it is not clear in Michigan which way elected officials who pass voting laws want those votes to be shifted. The fact that these two states share this kind of policy proves that voter suppression isn’t something that just happens in the South, but rather an issue that has found its way into nearly all parts of America, regardless of party politics

These policies surrounding first-time voters are not the only method employed by states to utilize absentee voting to suppress voters. The issue with absentee ballot requests is similar to the issue that exists regarding the process of voter purging: many of the states define their terms differently and thus throw out many requests for these ballots. In the 2016 election, counties in states such as Georgia threw out absentee voter applications based on small discrepancies such as signatures not lining up or an inaccurate date of birth. While these processes certainly pose potential problems with voter applications, the laws in Georgia do not specify a date by which voters must be made aware of the issues with their application. This can lead to messy situations where applications are rejected, and voters have very little time to reapply or respond to concerns regarding their applications. Combined with tales of absentee ballots not arriving until after election day and increasingly difficult-to-reach representatives in control of these ballots, room for corruption becomes apparent, especially when one realizes that many of these issues disproportionately affect minorities.

Both of these forms of voter suppression exist solely within the policy realm. There are still many logistical issues with polls on the days of elections, with numerous accounts of polls closing early, voter intimidation, long lines, and a decrease in early voting sites in certain states, all of which count as voter suppression.

The policies that enable this suppression lead to complicated questions about how these problems can be solved. Many of the policies enacted in terms of voter purging have been used to target specific groups of people, a fact that is becoming more and more apparent with each election. Perhaps the issue truly is the manner in which states are allowed to define procedures for local elections with very little federal input or regulation. With no set standard, there is states have extreme leeway to abuse their authority and exclude voters. Perhaps, in this instance, federal regulation could contribute to a decrease in voter suppression in future elections. If not, rampant voter suppression could continue to affect and even swing future elections, much to the detriment of our democracy.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Marco Verch and can be found here.

Hadessah O'Neal


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