What is Voter Suppression?

What is Voter Suppression?

By Hannah Shoue

3 Types of Voter Suppression

Loosely defined, voter suppression can be any means of blocking, obstructing, or restricting a person’s access to voting, often with the intent of reducing the voting power of a particular group of people. Voter suppression involves an interlocking system of rules, regulations, and restrictions that combine to impact a person’s ability to vote.

Some types of voter suppression appear to make sense on the surface, until you take a closer look and see how certain restrictions disproportionately affect certain groups of people (much more than one would expect were the restriction truly made for everyone’s protection) and play on a system engineered to disenfranchise Black people, Indigenous people, other racial groups, and other types of groups, such as people with disabilities[LS1] , the elderly, and students.

Gerrymandering & Redistricting

What it is: Redistricting is when state congressional districts are redrawn, which happens every 10 years after the US Census is completed. Gerrymandering refers to when redistricting is done to damage or sway a particular party or group’s political power. Gerrymandering has historically been used to dilute the power of the vote for Black people, Indigenous people, Latino/a people, and other racial groups (Soffen 2016).

Purpose and effectiveness: The purpose of redistricting is to create districts that will elect representatives to Congress. Ideally, people in a district will be able to elect a representative that reflects the interests and priorities of the district. Gerrymandering, however, has decreased the effectiveness of redistricting when district lines are redrawn to segment off certain pockets of voters from powerful districts, diluting their voting power, or to pack one large district full of people who vote similarly, meaning that those people will get less representation overall. Below is one of the clearest examples of partisan gerrymandering, where democratic voters in North Carolina were packed into specific districts, allowing more Republican representatives to win the state. Partisan gerrymandering does, however, occur in both political parties. Maryland and Illinois are currently considered gerrymandered in favor of Democrats, and Ohio and Texas are currently considered gerrymandered in favor of Republicans (Wines 2019).


Gerrymandering & Race: Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gerrymandering to dilute the power of Black voters or other large groupings of people of color in a state was an established practice (Soffen 2016). The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed this practice and even established a solution where states could create majority-minority districts, essentially packing certain districts with minority voters to ensure more representation for racial minorities (Ballotpedia). While the practice has been successful in electing more people from racial minorities to Congress, many argue that there are drawbacks. As we see with partisan gerrymandering above, packing districts can lead to less representation overall. Several states have drawn their majority-minority district lines in such a way that the percentage of minority voters in particular districts is far greater than what is necessary to win the simple majority. The minority voters not needed to win the majority are packed into one or two districts, preventing them from influencing the vote in other districts (Soffen 2016).

Summary: With the completion of the US Census in 2020, redistricting will occur again in 2021. Voters should be aware of how redistricting affects the power of their vote and be aware of the dangers of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering can be partisan, racial (or often, both) and sometimes is an agreement between both parties to try and keep as many incumbent seats as possible (Smith 2018). Ultimately, gerrymandering significantly affects the voting power of people of color across the United States.

Voter ID Laws 

What they are: Laws requiring voters to produce some form of ID at the polls. Thirty-six states have voter ID laws, with seven of them requiring photo ID specifically. Indiana was one of the first states to implement a voter ID law and currently requires voters to produce a government or state issued photo ID that includes an expiration date.

Purpose and effectiveness: The purpose of voter ID laws is to prevent voter fraud. The effectiveness of voter ID laws at preventing fraud is debatable because the only type of voter fraud an ID requirement can prevent is someone impersonating someone else at the polls, which occurs with extreme rarity (Levitt 2014). Absentee voters are typically not required to present a copy of ID unless they are first time voters.

Voter ID Laws & Race: Opponents of voter ID laws argue that voter ID laws create unnecessary and burdensome requirements for voting that disproportionately affect people of color’s ability to vote. Approximately 20% of minority individuals in the United States lack the necessary identification to vote (Mycoff, Wagner, Wilson 2009). Additionally, studies conducted about voter ID requirements show that they often are enforced in a discriminatory manner, with minority voters being much more likely to be questioned about their identification than white voters (ACLU).

However, there is also a debate on whether voter ID Iaws negatively impact voter turnout. Some research has shown that voter ID laws do not significantly have a negative impact on voter turnout (Mycoff, Wagner, Wilson 2009; Carden 2014), while other research estimates that voter turnout is impacted by 2-3 percentage points (ACLU).

Summary: While voter ID laws don’t seem to significantly affect voter turnout, they do add a layer of complexity to an already complicated system. Since research has shown voter ID requirements are not an effective method of preventing voter fraud, and since voter ID requirements create an opportunity, as the ACLU points out, for minority voters to be questioned additionally about their ability to vote, voter ID laws contribute to the voter suppression experienced by people of color in the United States.

Felony Disenfranchisement

What it is: Felony disenfranchisement laws differ from state to state; however, felony disenfranchisement refers to laws that restrict or prohibit the voting privileges of people with felony convictions (and sometimes misdemeanors) (ACLU).

Purpose and effectiveness: Generally, those in favor of felony disenfranchisement argue that people with felony convictions or who are currently serving their felony conviction should not be allowed to participate in democracy because they violated the social contract. Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, argues that felony disenfranchisement is “counterproductive to democracy” (Mauer 2011). In an article for the Howard Law Journal, Mauer points out that felony disenfranchisement originates with the first voting restrictions introduced in the United States, which were intended to give the right to vote to land-owning, male, white citizens only.Those original restrictions (against women, Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, and poor people respectively) have now all been addressed except for felony disenfranchisement.

Felony Disenfranchisement & Race: The strongest argument against felony disenfranchisement, however, is that people of color are disproportionately charged with felonies, meaning that felony disenfranchisement specifically affects and suppresses votes from Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. The Sentencing Project reports that 1 in 10 Black men in their thirties are in prison and American Indian youth are three times as likely as white youth to be held in a juvenile detention facility. Hispanic men are 2.3x more likely than white men to be incarcerated.

Overall, Sentencing Project and the ACLU estimate that about 5.8 million Americans are unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement/voting restrictions related to felony convictions (ACLU 2020; The Sentencing Project 2020). While voting restrictions related to felony convictions have been rolled back or adjusted in many states in recent years, there is still work to be done. With over 60% of incarcerated individuals being people of color (and people of color being ~36.6% of the general population), felony disenfranchisement is clearly impacting the voting power of people of color.

Take Action

Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and felony disenfranchisement are not the only types of voter suppression that affect Americans. Voter purges, access to polling places, and voter registration restrictions are a few other methods of voter suppression that interact with the types of voter suppression outlined in this article. Here are some things you can do to help tackle voter suppression:


American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “Block the Vote: Voter Suppression in 2020.” February 3, 2020. https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/

Ballotpedia, “Majority-Minority Districts” https://ballotpedia.org/Majority-minority_districts#cite_note-atlantic-2

Carden, Dan. “Indiana turnout not affected by voter ID requirement.” Northwest Indiana Times. August 31, 2014. https://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/elections/indiana-turnout-not-affected-by-voter-id-requirement/article_a385924c-8e14-5926-9d1d-600b7190e065.html

Levitt, Justin. “A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible instances out of one billion ballots cast.” The Washington Post. August 6, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/06/a-comprehensive-investigation-of-voter-impersonation-finds-31-credible-incidents-out-of-one-billion-ballots-cast/

Mauer, Marc. “Voting Behind Bars: An Argument for Voting By Prisoners.” Howard Law Journal, vol. 54, no. 3. June 23, 2011. Pp. 549–566. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/voting-behind-bars-an-argument-for-voting-by-prisoners/

Mycoff, Jason D.; Wagner, Michael W.; Wilson, David C. “The Empirical Effects of Voter ID Laws: Present or Absent?” The Brennan Center symposium on Voter-ID Issues in Politics and Political Science. January 2009. https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/Democracy/VRE/Mycoff%20et%20al.pdf

Smith, Gariel. “Teaching the Truth About Gerrymandering.” Teaching Tolerance, 2018. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/teaching-the-truth-about-gerrymandering

Soffen, Kim. “How racial gerrymandering deprives Black people of political power.” The Washington Post. June 9, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/09/how-a-widespread-practice-to-politically-empower-african-americans-might-actually-harm-them/

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