The Fight to Vote

In 1964 in Mississippi, a citizen who wanted to vote might have to do the following:

  • pay a poll tax for two consecutive years
  • read and copy out a section of the Mississippi Constitution
  • give a “reasonable interpretation” of any section of the Mississippi Constitution
  • demonstrate an understanding of the “duties and obligations of citizenship”
  • demonstrate “good moral character”
  • have his or her name published in the local newspaper for two weeks

It was an open secret that these rules were unequally applied. As the Supreme Court found in US v. Mississippi in 1965, Mississippi’s voting laws made it easy for white voting officials to discriminate against black applicants. The point of these burdensome, complicated rules, civil rights activist Russell H. Barrett wrote, was to “overwhelm the [black] voter,” so that “he will not have the audacity to even attempt registration.”

We’d like to think that we live in a more enlightened era. After all, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with poll taxes and literacy tests, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination illegal. But thinly disguised attempts to prevent minority voters from voting haven’t gone anywhere. If anything, they’ve proliferated, especially in the last two decades. Republican state politicians have used deceptive and discriminatory tactics—not so different from those used in Mississippi in 1964—to block the path to the ballot box for millions of American citizens.

The right to vote is under attack—and progressives must take action.

Rosa Parks’s poll tax receipt. Montgomery County, Alabama, 1957.

Rosa Parks’s poll tax receipt. Montgomery County, Alabama, 1957.

a substantial burden

"Voter suppression is a moral issue, not just a partisan one."

Every state has its own election laws. Some states use voter signatures to confirm voters’ identities, and some ask for biographical information. In recent years, many states have adopted voter identification laws, which require voters to show a government-issued ID before being granted a ballot.

The rationale for voter ID laws initially appears reasonable. We present an ID in many important situations: when we go through airport security, when we sign a mortgage agreement, when we apply for jobs. Given the threat of voter fraud and the urgent need to preserve a fair, representative democracy, shouldn’t we be as careful as possible when confirming voters’ identities?

But in-person voter fraud has been shown to be virtually nonexistent. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes in its seminal report on this issue, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” Most presumed acts of “fraud” are actually the result of clerical and typographical errors.

Approximately 11% of eligible voters lack a government-issued form of photo ID—and most of those voters are black or Latino and low-income. Wendy R. Weiser at the Brennan Center notes that, in Texas, "Hispanic registered voters are 3.2 times more likely than white voters to lack ID, and black registered voters are 2.3 times more likely to lack ID."  

ID laws create a logistical stumbling block that is extremely challenging for poor people to overcome. The cost of attaining a suitable ID might seem low from a middle class perspective, but for a single parent working minimum-wage jobs, a trip to a government office to procure ID might cost multiple hours in lost wages and childcare expenses—not to mention the cost of transportation and of the ID itself. The intimidation factor of bureaucratic rules, language, and social settings only heightens the stress and “cognitive cost” of procuring photo ID.

All this, to prevent the voter fraud that doesn’t menace our elections. As a panel of federal judges found in Texas v. Holder, strict voter ID laws create a “‘substantial burden’” that “will fall most heavily on the poor.” Like the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era, these laws make democratic participation unattainable for a targeted subset of the population.

good for republicans, bad for democracy

It’s no coincidence that lower-income minority voters typically vote for Democrats. With voter ID laws, Republican politicians have hit upon a strategy that tips elections toward Republican victories even as America’s minority population continues to grow.

States create voting laws, and Republicans currently control the three most powerful branches of government (the governorship, State House, and State Senate) in 25 states. This has given Republicans a remarkable opportunity to reshape voting rights—and to increase Republican power.

“Approximately 11% of eligible voters lack a government-issued photo ID.”

That power extends beyond the state level. In Wisconsin, ID laws may well have affected the 2016 presidential election. Experts say that more than 300,000 eligible voters didn’t have the necessary ID, and that many were lower-income people who may have been deterred from voting because of their inability to procure ID. Hillary Clinton lost the state to Donald Trump by fewer than 23,000 votes. Milwaukee alone saw a decline of 41,000 voters, as compared with turnout in the 2012 elections. Neil Albrecht, the head of Milwaukee’s election commission, confirmed that these declines were in “high-poverty” districts in which residents struggled to meet ID requirements.

Republican leaders have hardly kept quiet about their partisan objectives. A former Republican operative in Texas told a reporter in 2007 that, as paraphrased by the reporter, “requiring photo IDs could cause enough of a dropoff in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3 percent to the Republican vote.” In the buildup to the 2012 presidential election, Pennsylvania state representative Mike Turzai boasted that his state’s voter ID laws would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

What Republican leaders rarely acknowledge is that voter suppression is a moral issue, not just a partisan one. Voting rights form the foundation of our democracy. Our predecessors fought and died to secure their right to participate in a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”—a government centered around the idea that all are created equal, and all are warranted equal protections.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

the fight continues

In 2013, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court dismantled a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that states with a history of voter suppression were no longer required to seek federal approval before changing their election laws. This opened the door to a new host of voting rights infringements.

North Carolina passed an especially pernicious bundle of voting regulations in 2013, in the immediate wake of this Supreme Court ruling. GOP lawmakers saw an opportunity to achieve a stricter voter ID law, a shorter early voting period, and an end to same-day registration. Their “monster law” included provisions for increasing the number of “poll observers,” ending pre-registration for teenagers, and preventing counties from extending their polling place hours to account for long lines.

In 2016, a federal appeals court struck down the North Carolina law. “The new provisions,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in the appeals court ruling, “target African Americans with almost surgical precision…and…impose cures for problems that do not exist.”

The Supreme Court upheld this ruling, invalidating North Carolina’s ID law. But we can’t rest easy yet. ID laws are increasingly common across the United States. In 2000, 14 states had ID laws; by 2017, 34 states did. Republican politicians are building on public misperceptions of voter fraud to justify ever-stricter laws that make voting ever more difficult.

Under President Trump, we can expect a full-on assault on minority voting rights. Trump has demonstrated his obsession with voter fraud by lying repeatedly about mass fraud in the 2016 elections. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions—who in the 1980s prosecuted civil rights activists for voter fraud—appears unlikely to fight back against voter suppression efforts. Indeed, the Justice Department announced last month that it would drop its challenge to Texas’s voter ID law, even though Obama’s Justice Department argued that the law was “enacted with discriminatory intent.”

flipping for justice

“More voter ID laws lead to more Republican victories.”

Voter ID laws and other suppression measures help Republicans win elections—so the GOP has every incentive to keep passing them, enforcing them, and making them stricter. More laws lead to more Republican victories, which in turn lead to harsher voting laws that endanger our civil rights.

We can break this vicious cycle by working to flip state legislatures. By staffing our state houses, election boards, and governor’s mansions with trusted progressive leaders, we can start the process of repealing unjust voting laws and passing just, inclusive ones.

The real work of maintaining fair elections happens at the state and local level: in state houses, on boards of elections (whose top officials are often appointed by state legislatures or governors), and in polling places. Because voting law is so decentralized, with so many local quirks and variations, it’s easy for discriminatory voting practices to go unnoticed and uncorrected for years.

Across the country, we need to appoint Democratic leaders who will broaden—not restrict—voting rights in America. We need passionate public servants who will devote themselves to sifting through the minutiae of voting bills, who will fight against attacks, small and large, on equal voting rights. We need a brigade of energetic leaders at the ground level of politics.

Democratic legislators in blue states like Oregon and California are setting a strong example. In early 2015, Oregon became the first state to pass a law that automatically registers all citizens in the state who have driver’s licenses—a change that has already boosted registration by nearly 10%. California passed a similar bill that’s expected to enroll as many as 6.6 million new voters.

Republicans rely on us to get bored, to get lost in the details, to look away, to stop caring. But we can—and we must—outlast the Republicans by relentlessly paying attention. We’ll start by working patiently to turn our state governments blue; then we’ll push our elected state officials to fight for fair legislation. Throughout, we’ll remember our core belief: that the right to vote must not be “denied or abridged”—not for the poor, not for people of color, not for any American.

Join us at