Voting is fundamental to representative democracy. When a person is denied the right to vote, they are not represented in the political system. As the 2018 Midterm Elections approach, we’ve been hearing a lot about concerns of voter disenfranchisement and voter fraud. We put together this primer to breakdown the issues, offer recent examples and discuss implications for the election and beyond.
What is voter disenfranchisement?
The United States has a long history of voter disenfranchisement. The Constitution only granted the right to vote to white male landowners, leaving out all others. Only after a bloody civil war were African Americans granted the right to vote under the fifteenth Amendment, just to see those rights taken away under Jim Crow laws. Women were not granted the right to vote until the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920.
Voter disenfranchisement is often used in reference to a wide range of policies, laws, or even behaviors. The term can mean anything from voter suppression to voter intimidation to everything in between, and it evokes a strong emotional response because the right to vote is foundational to democracy.
Certain subsets of the population can face greater barriers to voting or be targeted for voter suppression efforts based on political affiliation, place of residence, ethnicity, disability, felon status, age, and gender identity. Barriers to voting might include:
- Not being able to get time off work – e.g. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Black and Hispanic voters are twice as likely as white respondents to be unable to get time off work for voting.
- Not having proper identification – Due to socioeconomic disparities, such barriers disproportionately impact minority voters. For example, since minority Americans are less likely to have flexible work hours or own cars, they might have a harder time affording a voter ID or getting to the right place (typically a DMV or BMV office) to obtain a voter ID.
- Polling place accessibility.
Disenfranchisement by Voter Fraud
In its 1964 ruling in Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that “the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.” “Dilution” or voter fraud can include anything from impersonation, false registration, duplication, absentee fraud, ineligible voting, voter intimidation and outright buying of votes.
Implications Beyond Elections
Electoral integrity is necessary for an effective functioning democracy and our democratic system rests on the faith we have in it. Electoral integrity in the United States has been undermined by Russian meddling through cyber-security breaches in state election records and misinformation campaigns. But claims of electoral fraud and voter suppression also undermine electoral integrity by exacerbating public distrust of elections and of political institutions. For the last two years in a row, the Economist Intelligence Unit has classified the United States as a “flawed democracy,” reflecting what the report noted was “a sharp fall in popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions.” While the American public’s support for the concept of democracy remains strong, there is evidence of a crisis of confidence about how U.S. democracy works in practice. A clear majority (55 percent) see American democracy as currently “weak,” and 68 percent believe it is “getting weaker,” according to a 2018 Freedom House report. Minority groups historically underserved by American democracy perceive most acutely the shortcomings of the political system. Public trust in the impartiality and reliability of the news media has also greatly declined. Most U.S. adults, including more than nine in 10 Republicans, say they personally have lost trust in the news media in recent years.
As research has shown, when the public sees elections as rigged or fraudulent, confidence in representative institutions erodes (Norris, 2014), and can lead to declining satisfaction in democracy (Fortin-Rittberger, Harfst, and Dinger, 2017), depressed voter turnout (Martinez I, Coma and Trinh, 2017), and trigger mass protests (Beaulieu, 2014). When the legitimacy of institutional checks and and balances is undermined, it curbs the potential for checking abuses of executive power (Norris and Inglehart, 2018).
Partisan Disenfranchisement: Gerrymandering
Every state, except for Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Vermont, Delaware, and Alaska, is separated into congressional voting divisions, called districts. The aforementioned states are each comprised of just a single district. Every 10 years, after the completion of the US Census, these lines are redrawn through a process called redistricting. This occurs with the census cycle because the US Constitution stipulates that district lines be drawn so that each district is equally populated and represented (State-by-state redistricting procedures, accessed 2018).
The state legislatures of 37 states redraw the lines that divide the state into congressional districts. However, in Washington, Idaho, California, and Arizona, an independent commission is responsible for redistricting. Uniquely, New Jersey and Hawaii task a commission of politicians with drawing the districts (Ibid.).
These redistricting methods offer varying amounts of control over who draws the district lines. The states that allow the politicians who will be representing the districts (and vying for reelection within them) to more closely participate in the redistricting process are at a greater risk for partisan gerrymandering.
Though the Constitution was structured such that legislatures would be “an exact Portrait, a Miniature, of the People at large,” partisan gerrymandering is a deliberate effort to redraw districts in a way that unfairly favors one political party to achieve a desired political outcome. The party in power in state political branches can use gerrymanders to further entrench their power. When we look at the electoral map, ideally what we want to see is a highly “responsive” map in which one party would steadily increase its seats as it increases its share of the votes. In a non-responsive map, a party in that state could increase its vote share by 10 or even 20 percent without gaining a single extra seat. Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Texas all have especially stark non-responsive maps. Partisan gerrymandering can especially increase barriers to a highly responsive map.
In June, the Supreme Court declined to make a decision on the big constitutional issues regarding partisan gerrymandering, instead sending the two cases before it (Gill v. Whitford from Wisconsin and Benisek v. Lamone from Maryland) back to lower courts for more processing.
Partisan gerrymandering creates a structural advantage to the incumbent party, with potential implications for the upcoming midterm elections and how the electorate is represented in Congress. According to a 2018 report by the Brennan Center, to gain control of the House of Representatives, Democrats would need to win the national popular vote in 2018 by the biggest margin in a midterm since 1982. At the same time, partisan gerrymandering is not the only culprit. It also has to do with the trend of more liberal voters moving away from rural areas and into cities — essentially, liberal voters packing themselves into urban districts.
The Moving and Closing of Polling Places
The location of polls can have a significant impact on who votes. Fewer polling places in a county can lower voter turnout, according to a 2011 study in the American Political Science Review, or can lead to longer lines, which may dissuade people from voting, according to research by Bipartisan Policy Center. According to a 2016 report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, localities across the country closed 868 polling places in the three years after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that struck down key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Even though many localities argue closures have been because of costs, many of the closures are in southern black communities and have disproportionately affected minority voters.
Frequent changes to polling-site locations also disproportionately hurt minority and low-income voters. For example, If a polling location is difficult to access because it is not on a public transportation route, it can affect the ability of voters to cast a ballot.
Polling place environments can also impact how people vote. Political science research has found that people who voted at schools were more likely to support an education funding initiative (Meredith et. al, 2006), and people who voted in churches were more likely to vote conservatively on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Apparently, the presence of Christian imagery “activates Christian values and attitudes and can thereby influence voting” (Rutchick, 2010).
This year in Dodge City, Kansas, a town of 27,000 people, election officials moved the only polling site outside of city limits. After this inconvenience, they sent out registration cards to newly registered people with the incorrect polling location information on it. This is not the first time this city has had voting accessibility issues.
Structural Disenfranchisement: Ex-Felons & Restoration of Voting Rights
According to the Sentencing Project, “A record 6.1 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes. The number of disenfranchised individuals has increased dramatically along with the rise in criminal justice populations in recent decades. In 1976, an estimated 1.17 million people were disenfranchised due to felon status, that number has skyrocketed to 6.1 million people today. In the state of Florida alone, 1.6 million people are ineligible due to previous felony convictions. Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects Black Americans, because they are incarcerated at a rate nearly six times that of white Americans. “As a result, the Sentencing Project estimates that 1 of every 13 black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised from the political system, a rate more than four times greater than among non-black Americans.” In the state of Florida alone, 1.6 million are ineligible due to previous felony convictions.
Voter Roll Purges
Several states have attempted to conduct sweeping purges of voter rolls, potentially undoing voters’ registration without their knowledge. Over the past two years, Florida purged over 7% of its voters, Georgia purged 10.6%, and North Carolina purged close to 12% of its registered voters. In order to keep voter rolls accurate, certain groups of registered voters are purged from the record. These groups include people who have died, moved, or committed a felony. Bad purges have been sighted in jurisdictions previously covered by pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. In these areas there is a statistically significant relationship between districts with high purge rates and elevated rates of voting by provisional ballot. This indicates that there may be some errors to address in the purging process.
Limiting the Early Voting Period
Ohio cut a whole week from early voting, eliminating the “golden week” in which voters could register and vote on the same day. Nebraska cut its early voting period from 35 days to no more than 30 days.
New Voter Registration Requirements
Kansas passed a law that requires new voters to show proof of citizenship to register to vote. Virginia also required groups submitting 25 or more voter registration forms to register with the state, and reduced the amount of time to deliver the forms from 15 days to 10 days. Georgia’s exact match law prevents a registration from being authorized if the information is not an exact match of what is already on file with the state government, including a requirement for exact match of signatures as well. The Secretary of State of Georgia is being questioned about the fairness of the law, pointing to the fact that 70% of the 53,000 registrations on hold for “exact match” belong to African Americans.
Restrictive Voter ID Laws
Each state has its own laws regarding identification to vote. Some states, like Virginia, require a photo ID while in other states, like Arizona, identification without a photo is fine.
Alabama, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin have recently passed laws that require voters prove their identity with a voter ID. Indiana also passed a law letting party-nominated election officers demand voter IDs at the polls. The laws limit which IDs are valid — Texas, for example, allows a gun permit but not a student ID (not government issued).
Voter ID laws can reduce turnout by preventing people who show up to the polls from voting and by deterring people from showing up to the polls in the first place. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise minority communities. Historically, Republican lawmakers are more likely than Democrats to endorse voter ID laws. One study published by the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies found that since Virginia changed its identification law to require photo identification, provisional ballots were more common at precincts where the majority of voters did not have a driver’s license and were over 85 years old.
North Dakota recently enforced a discriminatory voter ID law that heavily impacted Native American voters. On October 9th, the US Supreme Court denied the emergency application submitted by the Native American Rights Fund to stop this law. The law essentially requires a current residential address to be included on the voter ID that is to be presented at the polls. Thousands of Native American citizens often lack a residential street address because they are living on a reservation. Even though the District Court found this law to be discriminatory, the Eighth Circuit Court overturned the opinion. The Supreme Court’s denial means the law still stands.
Younger voters can face greater barriers to voting. As new voters, there is an education process. They aren’t just born with an innate understanding of the voting procedures and the political system. Furthermore, it can be difficult for many young people to even get to the polls. Once they are there, young voters may have face additional barriers because of many of the same laws that have created difficulty for older adult voters. For example, in Texas and Ohio, voters must have a valid photo ID to vote in elections, a college or university ID doesn’t qualify. This could potentially disenfranchise students who do not have any other type of photo ID, like a drivers license. Although Wisconsin does permit college IDs, it does not accept out-of-state IDs when university students would show up to the polls to vote.