The United States has a troubled history of voter suppression. Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many states used policies such as poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent African Americans from voting. Even after the voting barriers of the Jim Crow era were removed more than 50 years ago, some lawmakers continue to pursue policies that would undermine our nation’s progress.
Under the guise of tackling voter fraud, 14 states adopted measures to restrict voting ahead of the 2016 election. These measures, including strict voter ID requirements and reductions in early voting opportunities and polling places, created barriers for tens of thousands of low-income citizens and citizens of color. Alarmingly, five of the 14 states have a history of racial discrimination in voting and previously had to seek federal approval before changing their voting laws and procedures.
Even though studies have shown that illegal voting is a myth, President Donald Trump has called for tougher restrictions on voting. The right to vote is a fundamental pillar of American democracy, but if the new administration succeeds, countless Americans could face barriers to voting ahead of the next election. Here are some important facts to know about voter suppression in the United States.
Widespread voter fraud is a myth perpetrated to suppress American voters.
Throughout his presidential campaign and since being elected, Trump has made unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud. Studies show, however, that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in the United States. For example, a nationwide study conducted in 2012 at Arizona State University identified a mere 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud between 2000 and 2012. A follow-up study in 2016 looking for illegal voting in five states where politicians had raised concerns over fraudulent voting found zero successful prosecutions for voter impersonation. Furthermore, a Dartmouth College study found no evidence of voter fraud in the 2016 election.
People of color in states with a history of voting discrimination had fewer places to vote in 2016.
A Leadership Conference Education Fund study found that states with a history of voting discrimination—which until 2013 had to submit changes to their election laws to the federal government for approval before going into effect—operated 868 fewer polling places on Election Day in 2016. Voters in North Carolina faced mass poll closures during the 2016 election: In 40 counties with large black communities, citizens had 158 fewer early polling places where they could cast their votes. Reducing the number of polling places can lead to longer lines and wait times. During the first week of early voting in North Carolina, African American voter participation had declined by 16 percent when compared with the previous presidential election.
On average, African American voters are required to wait in line for twice as long as white voters.
Long lines are problematic, most notably for low-income people and people of color, who are less likely to have flexible employment and child care options that allow them to wait in line for hours at a time. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that, on average, Hispanic voters spend one and a half times as long in line than their white counterparts. African Americans spend nearly twice as long in line to vote. A Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report estimated that “long lines deterred at least 730,000 Americans from voting in November 2012.”
Strict voter ID laws disproportionately burden voters of color.
In recent years, multiple states have adopted strict voter ID laws. These laws require citizens to provide specific types of identification while excluding others. For example, Texas adopted a law allowing concealed weapons permits as an acceptable form of identification for voting while denying voters using student IDs. In 2016, a federal judge ruled that policymakers in Texas intended to discriminate against African American and Hispanic voters when they enacted the law. Despite this action, many strict voter ID laws remain. These laws place a disproportionate burden on people of color. In Indiana, for example, one study found that white citizens were 11.5 percentage points more likely than black citizens to have the accepted credentials to vote.
Purging voter rolls unduly targets people of color.
Under the guise of preventing illegal voting, several states have removed names from voter registration lists. Illegal purging disproportionately targets communities of color. In 2012, Florida’s governor and secretary of state compiled lists with limited and often outdated citizenship information of more than 180,000 people suspected of being noncitizens and threatened to remove these individuals from the voter rolls. Approximately 87 percent of those whose eligibility was questioned were people of color. Furthermore, during the 2016 presidential primary in New York, Hispanic voters were disproportionately removed from lists in a purge that affected more than 120,000 people.
The strength of American democracy depends on the ability of citizens to express their fundamental right to vote. Instead of pursuing the myth of voter fraud and encouraging tougher restrictions on voting, the Trump administration should work to fight voter suppression and expand the electorate.
Connor Maxwell is a Research Associate for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress. Danielle Root is the Voting Rights Manager for the Democracy and Government team at the Center.