A Short History of Voter Suppression

Voter suppression has been mentioned by numerous political pundits across the political spectrum; However, it is difficult to measure the impact of these voting irregularities. Therefore, several types of factors should be considered to understand voter suppression completely. This paper will examine the various techniques of voter suppression, including strict voter ID laws, gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement, literacy testing, polling hour manipulation, etc. All these techniques have been discussed extensively—but rarely together—and their effects are profound. This essay would examine the historical backgrounds of modern voter suppression to provide resources for further investigations.

In Shelby County v. Holder (U.S. Supreme Court, 2013), the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (52 U.S.C. § 10101, VRA) as unconstitutional because the court held that under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, states have a broad right to utilize their reserve power not responsible by the federal government, including “the power to regulate elections”(U.S. Supreme Court, 1991). Section 4, the section that determines the coverage formula requiring certain jurisdictions to preclear with the Justice Department before imposing new voting regulations, violated this belief and the constitutional principle of “equal sovereignty of states”. The court deems the coverage formula no longer rational given “voter turnout and registration rates in covered jurisdictions now approach parity” with jurisdictions not covered under the coverage formula. Since the section deeming a coverage formula was declared unconstitutional, unless Congress passes another coverage formula, which is unlikely, Section 5, which requires jurisdictions covered to pre-clear any voting changes with the Justice Department, would be rendered obsolete.

As an indirect consequence, Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, and Florida—all states implemented literacy test and/or poll tax before the 25th Amendment, which made poll tax unconstitutional, and VRA, which made literacy test illegal—passed voter identification laws after Holder(Brennan Center for Justice, 2016).  Supporters argue that the laws “protect the integrity of our elections by implementing the common sense requirement to show a photo ID when we vote”(Liptak, 2017).  This was said by North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger in a joint statement after the Supreme Court refuses to grant North Carolina certiorari in North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory (831 F.3d 204 (4th Cir. 2016)). In the ruling, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit struck down North Carolina’s strict voter ID law, saying its provisions “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision”(U.S. Court of Appeals, 2016). The court concludes “The photo ID requirement here is both too restrictive and not restrictive enough to effectively prevent voter fraud”(U.S. Supreme Court, 1996). Too restrictive, as in no individual has ever been charged with voter fraud in North Carolina, and not restrictive enough as in the voter ID requirement only applies to in-person voting, not absentee voting, where voter fraud is most likely to happen(Stern, 2016).  In other states, although there have been reported cases of voter fraud, occurrences are extremely rare and likely results of extreme cherry-picking(Riddell, 2016).


There are several types of modern voter suppression techniques, most notably through gerrymandering, disenfranchisement of convicted felons, strategic poll opening hours, combination of voting precincts and voter identification laws. All these techniques have been discussed profoundly and their effects are significant on swinging American and foreign (Australian, British, Canadian, among others) elections(Orr & Arkley, 2016) suggests in Canada, “the move to mandate physical ID in Canada reduced Indigenous voting there by 10 per cent”. Currently, the Canadian legislation mandates one piece of government-issued photo ID bearing name current address, or two pieces of non-photo ID bearing name current address, similar to the strict non-photo ID laws passed in Arizona passed in 2015. There have no reports of this practice significantly lowering voter turnout on a macro scale, but when the scope of such law is put on indigenous Canadians, their voter turnout decreased about 10%–since indigenous Canadians mainly vote NDP and Liberal, decreasing their turnout would increase the chance that Conservatives win the election (Arkley, 2015). In Australia, Arkley’s paper also expressed that it is “fairly conclusive that voter ID disadvantaged indigenous voters and those people living in rural and remote areas”.

There appears to be a strong evidence that voter ID laws disenfranchise minority and poorer voters systematically, at advantage of right-wing, conservative political parties. However, such research could be bettered by using a weighted regression pattern correlated with demographics to investigate the scope of such suppression among various areas of the administrations that have implemented voter ID laws. With such empirical research, the scope of voter suppression can be better understood.


  • Arklay, Tracey. “The Voter ID Experiment: Reform Or the Continuation of a Queensland Tradition?” Social Alternatives 34, no. 3 (2015): 12-17.
  • Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U. S. ____ (2013)
  • Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U. S. 452, 461–462. (1991)
  • North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory 831 F.3d 204 (4th Cir. 2016)), 11
  • Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 633 (1996)
  • Stern, Mark Joseph. “Why Republicans Aren’t Actually Interested in Stopping Voter Fraud.” Slate Magazine. September 01, 2016. Accessed May 16, 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/09/01/voter_fraud_ exists_through_absentee_ballots_but_republicans_won_t_stop_it.html.
  • Riddell, Kelly. “No, voter fraud isn’t a myth: 10 cases where it’s all too real.” The Washington Times. October 17, 2016. Accessed May 16, 2017. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/17/no-voter-fraud-isnt-myth-10-cases-where-its-all-to/.
  • Orr, Graeme, and Tracey Arklay. 2016. Rethinking voter identification: Its rationale and impact. Australian Journal of Political Science 51 (3): 386-99. DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2016.1197181

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