Photograph by Charles Shaw, Getty
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A young civil rights activist holds a flag in support of voting rights on the day before the Selma to Montgomery March arrived at the Alabama State Capitol on March 24, 1965. For decades, those rights were suppressed through barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Photograph by Charles Shaw, Getty

Voter suppression has haunted America since it was founded

Ever since the Constitution was written, some of the nation's leaders have sought to deny the vote to those who might wrest their power away.

On August 12, 1890, more than a hundred men gathered in the Mississippi state capital for a constitutional convention. In his opening speech, Judge Solomon Saladin Calhoon, president of the convention, charged the delegates with a single task: devise a way to keep Black men from voting in Mississippi.

“This ballot system must be so arranged as to effect one object,” he said. Twenty years after the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments granted Black Americans citizenship and gave Black men the right to vote, “we find the two races now together, the rule of one of which has always meant economic and moral ruin; we find another race whose rule has always meant prosperity and happiness, and prosperity and happiness to all races.”

These words ushered in 75 years of systemic voter suppression in the United States marked by poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence directed toward Black people who attempted to vote. But this wasn’t the first time in U.S. history that those in power have disenfranchised others who they feared would wrest it away—nor was it the last.

Voter suppression has once again become part of the national conversation in the 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump drew criticism in August when he acknowledged he opposed additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service because a lack of resources would impede voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. “That means you can't have universal mail-in voting because they're not equipped to have it,” he said. (Trump has falsely claimed that mail-in and absentee voting are rife with fraud, though studies have repeatedly found voter fraud is rare in the U.S. A panel established by Trump to investigate voter fraud was disbanded in 2018 after it found no evidence.)

What exactly is voter suppression and how have its methods changed over time? It started with the Founding Fathers’ fateful decision not to enshrine the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution.

How early America decided who deserved the right to vote

In 1787, the Founding Fathers wrestled over how to address suffrage in the U.S. Constitution. At the time, voting was restricted to wealthy white landowners. The framers debated whether it should be extended to commoners who had joined arms with them in the American Revolution, but who might overrule their interests. Ultimately, the question was punted to the states in Article I, Section 4, of the Constitution, which declares: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”

American University historian Allan Lichtman writes that this decision had “profound, lasting consequences for American democracy.” By not giving U.S. citizens an explicit constitutional right to vote, the Founding Fathers effectively decoupled voting rights from citizenship and denied those whom states barred from voting any recourse through the federal government.

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Suffragist Florence Jaffray "Daisy" Harriman holds a banner emblazoned with the women's suffrage movement motto, "Failure Is Impossible." Susan B. Anthony had famously spoken these words to encourage her allies in the fight to demand the voting rights that had long been denied to women in America.

In the years that followed, voter requirements varied wildly according to the whims and prejudices of individual states. While most expanded eligibility at first—and ultimately provided near-universal suffrage for white men—states began to impose new restrictions. In 1800, only five of 16 states had instituted white-only voting, yet from 1802 onward, every new free or slave state to join the Union except for Maine banned Black people from voting. In 1807, New Jersey, which originally gave voting rights to “all inhabitants,” passed a law to disenfranchise women and Black men. Maryland banned Jewish people from its polls until 1828.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, however, the federal government waded back into the issue. During Reconstruction, Congress passed a series of constitutional amendments to guarantee the rights of formerly enslaved people, including the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which prohibited denying the vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But it left states in charge of elections—and many of them soon set out to suppress these new rights.

How states evaded the Constitution’s voter protections

In the Reconstruction era, political life opened up in the South. Though women were still unable to vote, as were many immigrants and Native Americans, Black men gained power in some parts of the South. Mississippi even sent two Black men to the U.S. Senate as representatives of the Republican Party, of which Black men formed an overwhelming majority in the South. (For Black women, the 19th Amendment didn't end their fight to vote.)

White Democrats chafed at this loss of control. In 1875, Mississippi Democrats launched a campaign of intimidation at the polls that succeeded in restoring white Democrats to power in Mississippi by 1881. Hoping to keep it that way, they convened a state constitutional convention in 1890. As historian Dorothy Overstreet Pratt writes, Democrats “widely admitted” the convention was designed to circumvent the 15th Amendment. Leveraging the state’s power to determine how and when elections would be held, the new state constitution instituted tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests designed specifically to shut out Black voters to whom they denied the education and economic opportunities needed to clear these hurdles. The convention’s lone Black delegate—Isaiah Montgomery, a member of a wealthy and well-educated family—chided his colleagues for their rigid racial views but ultimately delivered a speech in support of their efforts, which Overstreet Pratt notes was the “most puzzling aspect of the convention” but might be attributed to his family’s wealth and status.

Within about five years, the other Southern states followed Mississippi’s lead and enacted their own restrictive laws, known as Jim Crow laws, which they paired with continued violence and intimidation to suppress the Black vote. These tactics worked. By 1892, Mississippi had cut the percentage of eligible Black men who were registered to vote from more than 90 percent to less than 6 percent. Black citizens were equally disenfranchised across the South and the conservative Southern Democratic Party surged to power. For the next 70 years, white supremacists continued to use these voter suppression tactics to ensure their rule.

By the 1960s, however, more than a decade of protests, nonviolent resistance, and voter registration efforts that took place during the civil rights movement yielded federal intervention. In 1964, the states ratified the 24th Amendment, which prohibited poll taxes. Then, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act barred the remainder of the voter suppression tactics that states had been using and established federal oversight over localities with histories of voter discrimination.

Why voter suppression remains contentious today

In the decades after the Voting Rights Act was passed, the U.S. government took further action to ensure citizens’ right to vote, from protecting the rights of voters who don’t speak English to making polling places more accessible to the elderly and people with disabilities. Yet voter suppression has become an increasing point of contention in the last two decades as state legislatures institute new rules for running elections, and as federal oversight has been eroded.

After Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Southern Democrats defected in great numbers to the Republican Party and the political parties realigned. In recent decades, Republican-led state legislatures nationwide have introduced a variety of new restrictions, which make it more difficult to cast a vote. Some require voters to first obtain identification or proof of citizenship; others purge inactive names from the rolls of registered voters; and still others have shortened early voting periods or limited access to absentee and mail-in voting. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back a key provision of the Voting Rights Act provision that gave federal authorities oversight of districts based on their histories of voter discrimination, which had long prevented such regulations.

States argue these measures are designed to reduce election fraud. Trump, too, says he is concerned about electoral fraud, though in March 2020 he said one of the reasons he does not support vote-by-mail is because he believes wider participation means “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” While some believe mail-in voting and other policies that increase voter turnout benefit Democrats, a recent Stanford study found it does not advantage either party. (Here's how mail-in voting began on Civil War battlefields.)

Modern Democrats, however, worry that all of these measures—from voter ID laws to restricting mail-in voting—are a new form of voter suppression. In 2018, the bipartisan and independent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a comprehensive report declaring that these procedures “wrongly prevent some citizens from voting” and “have a disparate impact on voters of color and poor voters.” It found that states with strict voter ID laws correlate with an increased gap between white and minority voters; that proof-of-citizenship laws place an undue burden by requiring citizens to pay fees to obtain those documents; and that cutting early voting creates long lines that limit minority citizens’ access to the polls.

As lawsuits challenging these restrictive practices wend their way through the courts, the civil rights commission urged Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act’s federal oversight. “The right to vote is the bedrock of American democracy,” the report noted, adding, “Racial discrimination in voting has proven to be a particularly pernicious and enduring American problem.”