Voter suppression in the U.S.: if you can’t beat them, cheat them

Source: Chuck Burton (Associated Press)

An examination of the structural inequalities and anti-democratic nature of the United States government 

By Camille Landry (Program Coordinator)

The singer Paul Simon told us there are 50 ways to leave your lover. Turns out there are at least 50 ways to suppress the votes of U.S. voters.

What is a democracy? The term democracy literally means rule by the people. The word comes from the Greek: demos means “village” or “people”; kratos means “rule.” Although the government of the United States is generally called a democracy, it’s specifically a constitutional republic in which people vote for representatives, who then make laws, treaties and decisions according to a constitution. That constitution is supposed to make it impossible for those representatives to create laws that violate people’s rights.

The United States is not truly democratic. It never was because from the very beginning, the rights of citizenship have not applied to all people. At the very time the founders of this nation were writing their enlightened and noble ideas of freedom and individual liberties and creating the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the government was engaging in a wide variety of heinous acts that denied basic human rights to millions of people. This included a land grab of massive proportions, the genocide of millions of Indigenous people and the enslavement and deaths of millions of African people. This represents the most fundamental kind of inequality – policies, practices, laws and social norms that threaten the right to life, liberty and to full participation in the nation based upon race, ethnicity, gender and religion.

The struggle for voting rights

Voting is a fundamental civil right denied to many via our electoral system. The built-in structure of the electoral system in the United States promotes and maintains inequality. At no time in the history of this nation have all residents or citizens had the unobstructed right to vote, to hold office or to experience equality under the law.

The struggle for voting rights dates to the founding of the nation. The original Constitution did not define who could or could not vote. It did, however, grant individual states the power to make regulations and set policies for their elections. Until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, states could and commonly did deny the vote to large portions of their population. 

Until 1870, when the 15th Amendment extended voting rights to men of all races, only white men were allowed to vote. Some states (chiefly the southern ones but also states with large populations of Indigenous or Latine people) could require that certain citizens (amazingly, the BIPOC ones) had to pass a literacy test or an “intelligence test” in order to be qualified to vote – which was frequently a set of questions that few people of any race, age or educational level could pass, often including ridiculous prompts such as “state how many beans are in this jar?” or to recite the state constitution verbatim. Certain would-be voters – primarily Black people – were often required to pay a poll tax. Women did not have the right to vote in all 50 states until 1920. More than 100 years of struggle for equality culminated in the 19th Amendment, which enfranchised all U.S. women and declared that women, like men, deserve all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Source: Universal History Archive – Getty Images

In 1964 the 24th Amendment made poll taxes illegal in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed by Lyndon B. Johnson, banned the use of literacy tests, provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50% of the non-white population had registered to vote and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. Poll taxes in state elections were banned shortly after that in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The discussion of voting rights and democracy often focuses on what happens within the system – issues like voter access and suppression – and ignores the fact that the basic structure of the United States government is based upon racial and class oppression. There are many ways in which the structures of the United States’ constitutional republic cement inequality in access to political participation. The Electoral College is a prime example of that structural inequality.

Structural inequality of the U.S. Republic

The Electoral College

The United States Electoral College is a structure that stands between the popular vote and the outcome of a presidential election. It can award the presidency of the nation to a person who did not win the majority of votes cast. This has happened five times in the history of this country: Andrew Jackson, Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland, George W. Bush and Donald Trump did not win the popular vote yet became president.

The Electoral College is not a place or a building. It’s the group of presidential electors required by the Constitution to form every four years for the sole purpose of appointing the president and vice president. Each state and the District of Columbia appoints electors according to the methods described by its legislature, equal in number to its congressional delegation (representatives and senators). That means each state gets two electors (because each state has two senators) plus an additional elector for every congressional seat (which is based on the state’s population during the previous census).

Source: Mark Makela (Getty Images)

“No one likes the Electoral College, except those who were elected because of it. No one likes gerrymandering, except those doing the gerrymandering. No one likes the filibuster, except those doing the filibustering.”

– Kevin Bleyer

The U.S. currently has a total of 538 electors. It takes an absolute majority of 270 or more electoral votes to elect the president and vice president. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority there, a contingent election is held by the United States House of Representatives to elect the president and by the United States Senate to elect the vice president.

If this sounds fishy to you, it’s because it was planned that way.

The Zinn Project explains that the Electoral College was created as a solution for giving too much power to “undesirables.” Many of the 55 white men at the Constitutional Convention worried about giving too much power to the people, or as John Stuart Mill once described, the “tyranny of the majority.” Alexander Hamilton said the masses were prone to passion and might use their vote unwisely. Of course, both passion and wisdom are highly subjective terms. James Madison listed the “wicked schemes” inflaming the people to act so unwisely: “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property[…]” Madison called voters advancing their own economic interests wicked, but referred to his brethren – who were insulating their own wealth and power in Philadelphia – as “enlightened statesmen.” The Electoral College, which advanced the interests of the country’s elite minority, was considered a “solution” to bankers and plantation owners in 1787 but looked like exclusion if you were a poor indebted veteran in western Massachusetts, an enslaved person in Virginia or a Hitchiti person fleeing land-thieving white settlers in Georgia.

There was another issue on the minds of the “founding fathers”: Madison pointed out that a popular vote would deprive the white South of “influence in the election on the score of the Negroes.” He was, of course, referring to the 21% of the United States population made up of enslaved people. Since the men at the Constitutional Convention had already adopted the Three-Fifths Compromise, establishing that enslaved people held 3/5 of the representation of white property owners, the Electoral College became a “solution” to their problem because adopting the compromise effectively inflated the southern elite’s influence in presidential elections.

Another rationale for the Electoral College was to balance power between smaller, less populous states and larger, often more populous ones. This inequality continues today. Each state has one electoral vote for each senator – and every state has two senators, regardless of population. Additional electors are assigned based upon the number of congressional seats in the state. That means that a state such as Wyoming, which has only 1/8 the population of Los Angeles County, nonetheless has three electoral votes. The entire state of California, with a population greater than the total population of the smallest 20 states – has only 55 electoral votes. That means the electors of Wyoming, Delaware, Vermont, North and South Dakota, Montana, Rhode Island and other small states have a disproportionate level of power when it comes to choosing presidents.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome this kind of structural bias. It was solidly and cleverly structured to disenfranchise people. The Electoral College and original laws governing who can and cannot vote set the stage for many other forms of voter suppression today.

The Senate and the filibuster

The United States Senate is fundamentally unequal. The Constitution stipulates that every state has two senators, regardless of population. This means that a Californian has just 1/67 of a Wyoming resident’s representation in the Senate.

The filibuster, or the longest-winded side wins, is commonly employed in the Senate to impede legislative action. The word filibuster comes from the Spanish filibustero, which means “lawless plunderer.” Permitted by law, the filibuster is a tactic used by senators called upon to speak to continue speaking for as long as they can hold forth continuously. Until that senator yields the floor, no further business can be conducted. The record for the longest filibuster is held by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. He used the filibuster for 24 hours and 18 minutes to delay a vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

When the structural inequality of the Senate is combined with the filibuster, just 41 Senators potentially representing only a fraction U.S. population can wield veto power over a proposed bill or nominee.

Local forms of voter suppression

There are many other ways to manipulate the system so as to cheat people out of their right to vote. Some methods are aimed directly at senior citizens and poor people who, not incidentally, tend to vote for more progressive candidates.

Hacking, cracking, cheating: gerrymandering

One of the ways in which democracy is denied to many is through gerrymandering. This is the practice of drawing district lines in a way that favors one political group or another. Voters are supposed to choose candidates, but when lawmakers draw district lines to entrench one party’s political power, some votes count more than others. Office holders choose who will vote for them by structuring voting districts to affect election outcomes.

The first image demonstrates the impacts of “packing” many purple voters into one district while “cracking” the rest into a large number of districts where they receive just under 50% of the vote, resulting in a green party victory. The second image represents a more even division of purple and green voters in which the purple party wins the majority vote. Source: Princeton Gerrymandering Project

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project explains it this way:

“The goal of partisan gerrymandering is to amplify a political party’s power beyond what it deserves based on their vote share alone. This process is accomplished by two complementary methods: packing and cracking. ‘Packing’ occurs when many supporters of the victim party are jammed into a small number of districts, giving them a few overwhelming wins. The remaining members of the victim party are then ‘cracked,’ spread across a large number of districts, so that they consistently win just under 50% of the vote. Luckily, packing and cracking creates a distinctive pattern of wins for both the perpetrator and the victim parties, wherein the victim party wins its few seats by overwhelming margins and the perpetrating party wins its many seats by considerably lower margins.”

Source: Princeton Gerrymandering Project

Here is an electoral map of North Carolina. Note how packing and cracking serve to limit the electoral power of Democrats and give votes to Republican candidates. You can check out the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s Redistricting Report Card to see how your state scores in gerrymandering.

Burdensome voter ID requirements

There are very few recorded instances of people using someone else’s ID to vote. Who would risk a prison sentence for an act that will not ultimately decide the outcome of an election? Nonetheless, many states now require specific types of ID in order to vote. About 11% of eligible voters lack official government ID. The majority of these people are senior citizens, Black, Brown and/or poor. There are many barriers to acquiring an approved ID, including lack of transportation to often distant offices that are only open during certain hours, the cost of the ID and not having the source documents like birth certificates and marriage certificates to prove identification. Some states allow the use of a hunting license to vote while rejecting identification from state universities. This writer took her grandmother to vote, only to have her turned away because she had no driver’s license. She was 92 years old. Her Social Security card, Medicare ID card and other ID were rejected. Georgia requires that all identification be precisely identical. Thus, if you have a hyphenated last name but your voter ID omits the hyphen, you are turned away at the polls. Ditto if one ID form has your middle name but a different ID uses your initial.

Address requirements

Some states bar people from voting if they do not have a street address. Many Indigenous reservations and other rural areas do not have street addresses. The Navajo Nation (spanning Utah, New Mexico and Arizona) has 50,000 unaddressed homes and businesses, creating complications for hundreds of thousands of people. A federal court in 2020 found that only 18% of Native American registered voters in Arizona have home mail service.

Inadequate voting options

Manipulation of polling places disenfranchises many voters. The last election cycle saw many polling places closed down, forcing voters to travel longer distances to cast a ballot. This disproportionately affects older and low-income people. Other states passed laws making it illegal to provide food or water to people waiting in line to vote. In some places, the waits were over six hours. Many states also passed laws limiting the ability to vote early. Short waiting times, accessible polling places and early voting make voting possible for people who do not have the luxury of paid time off. Although federal law requires employers to allow time for voting, most employers grant only an hour to do so. That doesn’t help much if your polling place is two miles from home and the line is hours long.

Source: The Washington Post

Michigan banned companies from offering free or discounted rides to voting locations and barred advocacy groups from paying for such rides. In Georgia, state police stopped vehicles shuttling Black voters to polls, ordering elderly Black voters off a voting bus shuttle.

Limiting mail ballots is a favorite trick of those who want to choose their voters. Alaska automatically mails ballots to adults over 65, who tend to vote Republican, but makes it difficult for younger people to use mail ballots. Alaska, Alabama and South Dakota require witnessed affidavits for absentee voting. Mississippi has the most restrictive absentee ballot process, requiring an official witness for both the absentee voting application and the completed ballot. Many other states require the mail ballot to be notarized for some if not all voters (some states waive that requirement for people who are homebound). Even if there is a stipulation that this notary service must be free, it is still incumbent upon the voter to find a notary. Even the amounts of postage required for the ballot can present a burden to voters, especially in an era where fewer people use postal mail and getting stamps requires a trip to the post office.

Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and other states have limited the number of sites where mail ballots can be dropped off and the hours during which these sites operate. Signature challenges for mail ballots are also common. Signatures deemed to be “mismatched” by election officials often are arbitrary, disproportionately void minority votes and disenfranchise seniors, women and many citizens of every age. Voting another’s ballot is a rarity and a felony, so signature checks should have a pro-inclusion bias. Yet that is not the case. An Ohio lawsuit maintained that 97% of voters rejected were likely to be wrongly disenfranchised. Bills imposing new signature match requirements are pending in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

There are many other ways in which states make it difficult to vote. Some polling places have long lines but nowhere to rest while waiting. Others chronically run out of ballots or ballot machines or have an insufficient number of pens to mark the ballots or not enough tables for people to stand at to mark their ballots.

Disenfranchising based on convictions

Source: Wilfredo Lee (Associated Press and Shutterstock)

People who have committed crimes are still citizens of this country. It is unjust to permanently deprive them of the right to vote, yet that happens. Some states require people who have been convicted of a felony to petition the governor or some other agency to have their right to vote reinstated. This is a time-consuming, expensive and difficult process. In many states, it is legal to vote once the person has completed their original sentence – what the judge proclaimed at trial. This is usually longer than time served. People have been prosecuted for voting before the expiration of their original sentences.

Voter suppression due to convictions plays out in other ways, too. In the leadup to the 2004 election, the State of Florida purged all registered voters whose names, birth dates and races matched those of convicted people. Many Black voters who just happened to share a name with a person convicted of a crime unjustly lost their right to vote with the push of a button. Most of the affected people did not learn that they had been disenfranchised until they showed up to vote and were turned away.

Overturning the Voting Rights Act

Source: Gabriel C. Pérez (KUT)

The issues cited above in no way include all the ways in which the right to vote is unjustly stripped from people. Despite staunch and often violent protests by southern states, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting. It was amended 14 times to expand its scope. Originally set to expire after 10 years, Congress re-authorized Section 203 of the Act in 1982 for seven years, expanded and re-authorized it in 1992 for another 15 years and re-authorized it again in 2006 for another 25 years.

Those who would block Black and other voters from the polls continued their battle to do so. On June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a five to four vote that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional because the coverage formula was based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states.

Following this decision, calculated rollbacks of voting rights laws have occurred. Jurisdictions that previously had to seek prior authorizations to change election laws can make them with no restrictions. Examples of these changes discussed above include the closure of polling locations, more stringent voter identification requirements and more voter roll purges. Removing Section 4(b), the key protective element of the Act that proactively prevented discrimination against voters, turned nearly 50 years of advancements in voting rights on its head and created an environment where voters must first suffer an injury to have standing to sue for a remedy. This is an anathema to those who’ve worked to protect and advance the right to vote.

Creating a semblance of democracy

Source: Associated Press

It would require volumes to address the many and varied issues and obstacles to true democracy in the United States. Voter suppression is intersectional – it has many different aspects that are knotted together in a very wide web of discrimination, including racial, economic, gender-based, ethnic, religious and scores of other attributes that both singly and collectively limit political participation and the full realization of human rights. The fact that there is still disagreement about this and about who has the right to vote is an indicator of how far this nation has to go to reach any semblance of equity. The first step in creating a truly democratic society is the acceptance that unfettered democracy is important.

These actions would move us closer to a just and equitable voting system:

  • Abolish the Electoral College. It is a remnant of the racist and classist origins of this country and has no place in an open democracy. One person: one vote should be the standard for everyone, everywhere.
  • Make election days public holidays. This removes barriers to voting for citizens who work odd or unpredictable hours or have other problems accessing a nearby polling place.
  • Remove barriers to voter registration. People should be automatically registered to vote on their 18th birthday, just as men are now automatically registered for Selective Service when they reach 18. Having an opt-out rather than an opt-in voter registration process would remove many barriers to voting.
  • Remove oppressive voter ID requirements. Any form of identification provided by a public institution should be accepted. This should include student or work ID badges, state ID cards, professional licenses and other forms of identification. Voters without ID should be permitted to cast provisional ballots, which are then checked and accepted or rejected by a trained bipartisan group of examiners.
  • Make mail-in voting legal for everyone, everywhere, at no cost (and do not require stamps on ballots or notary stamps). Mail-in voting has proven to be fair, without fraud, and actually costs states less than in-person voting since they don’t have to pay poll workers. Fraud is easier to prevent when all votes arrive at and are counted by a trained staff of workers and election observers in a central location.
  • Ensure that there are adequate polling places and that no voter has to travel a great distance or stand in line for more than 30 minutes in order to vote. Also make sure that there are an adequate number of voting machines, ballots and other supplies at each polling place and that voters know where to go to cast their ballots.
  • Remove laws that prevent people from providing rides to the polls or giving refreshments to people standing in line to vote. This speaks for itself.
  • Automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies as soon as their sentences are completed. They are still citizens and reserve the right to participate in elections that impact their lives. 
  • Utilize public service announcements in the media to educate voters on the candidates and their platforms. Candidates’ statements should also be publicly fact-checked.
  • End purges of voter rolls except in the case of death. Even if a person has not voted for decades, they should remain registered unless they ask to be removed from the rolls.
  • Extend the franchise to citizens of the District of Columbia and to residents of U.S. territories. These people pay taxes and are subject to U.S. laws. They should have full voting rights. The U.S. should either grant them full citizenship or set them free of colonial rule.

Ending blatant vote suppression will not cure everything that’s wrong with the United States. That is a task far beyond the scope of this article or the work of any individual or organization – but it’s a start. It’s kind of like the question, “how do you eat an elephant?” The answer is: one bite at a time.


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This article is part of a series in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the United States: 2023 Report