2012 Election Controversy: "Voter Suppression"

Students discuss the history of voting rights and the current push to restrict voting, including the arguments for and against.


Learning Objectives

  • Students will learn about the history of voting rights in the United States

  • Students will learn about laws in certain states that make it harder for some people to vote.

  • Students will analyze the arguments for and against these laws.

  • Students will examine ways to ensure that all citizens can vote.



Draw a line graph with 0 on one end and 100% on the other end as in the line below. Write the 25%, 50% and 75% points on the line.

Ask students: Can you guess what percentage of the eligible voting population votes in U.S. presidential elections? Record their responses on the chart by noting the points with different colors or initials.
Then give them the percentages:  

  • In 2008, 57% of eligible voters voted.
  • In 2004, 55% voted.
  • In 2000 51% voted. 
  • In 2010 and other years when there wasn't a Presidential election, between 36 and 39% of eligible voters voted. 


  • Does this surprise you?  Why or why not? 
  • Is this a reasonable percentage of voters? 
  • Why would so many people not vote?
  • Do you think more people should vote?



Pairs: Talk About Voting

In pairs, have students talk with each other for 2-3 minutes about the last time they voted for something. It could be a school election, voting in an online poll, voting on a reality show, etc.  When students are finished talking in pairs, discuss by asking: Why did you vote? How does it feel when you vote? What is the point of voting?  How would you feel if you wanted to vote, but couldn't?
Remind them of the percentages on voter turnout.  Explain that in many other democratic and wealthy countries like the U.S., voter turnout is much higher (In Belgium, turnout is 94%; in Australia, Greece and Italy it is close to 80%.) 
One of the reasons the U.S. has a lower voter turnout than these countries is that it is harder to vote in the U.S. Our two-step process is more complicated than in many other places: In the U.S. people usually must register in advance of voting.  In some other countries, residents are automatically put on the voter list and so don't have to register in advance. In about 30 countries, voting is mandatory.


Background: Voter Suppression & Voting Rights

Tell students that there is a major controversy during this presidential election year over state laws that make it harder for people to vote.
But before you discuss what's happening now, provide students with a little background about the history of voting rights and of past laws that have prevented eligible voters from voting or kept their votes from counting. Summarize some of the information below. 
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution adopted in 1870 says:  "The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

But by the late 1800s, ten white Southern state legislatures had passed laws that made it impossible for many African-Americans to vote. In some states, voters had to pay a poll tax in order to vote.  Whites who could claim that their grandfathers had voted were exempted from paying the poll tax under a "grandfather clause." But African Americans, whose grandfathers had often been slaves, were not exempted, and usually could not afford to pay the tax. The grandfather clause was also applied to another kind of restrictive law, the literacy test. Often whites who could claim a voting grandfather didn't have to take the test. But African Americans did have to take the test. Whether they passed was up to discretion of white voting registrars.
As a result of these and other strategies, almost all Black people in the south were denied their right to vote. In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the grandfather clause unconstitutional because it violated equal voting rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment.
However, many African Americans continued to face huge obstacles to voting, until the Civil Rights Movement got underway. One of its key moments came on March 7, 1965, when 600 people marched on the statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest barriers to African American voter registration and the killing of a civil rights worker. Five months later, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Section 1 of the Act states its main purpose: to prevent states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure—to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
Ask students: What do you think this means?

The effects were dramatic and immediate. The number of voting-age African Americans registered to vote in Mississippi jumped from 6.7 percent to 66.5 percent in four years.
For more information, see our 2009 Teachable Moment lesson Voting Rights Act of 1965, Then and Now
Voting rights have continued to be an issue:
2000 Presidential Election. Voters in Florida complained about confusing ballots, computer glitches, and misplaced ballot boxes. Some voters were turned away from polling places.  The final outcome of the election was not known for more than a month after voting, because of the extended process of counting and then recounting in Florida. The outcome of the election nationally hinged on who won in Florida. After an intense recount process and a decision by the United States Supreme Court, George W. Bush officially won Florida's electoral votes, and the national election, by a margin of only 537 popular votes. Later a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that although only 11 percent of Florida voters in 2000 were African American, more than half of the 180,000 ballots that had been rejected by election officials were filled out by voters who were African American.
2004 Presidential Election:  During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, concerns were raised about various aspects of the voting process, including whether voting had been made accessible to all those entitled to vote, whether ineligible voters were registered, whether voters were registered multiple times, and whether the votes cast had been correctly counted because of electronic voting machines.


Controversy over Voting Rights in 2012

Explain that the debate over voting rights has once again heated up during the 2012 election. The controversy centers on states that have passed laws that restrict people's ability to vote. These laws have a disproportionate effect on certain groups of voters.

  • Why do you think these laws are being proposed and enacted?
  • Why do you think certain groups may be targeted for voter suppression? Why might some people or groups not want them to vote?
  • If you were trying to find ways to get people not to vote, how would you do it?  Record students' responses on the board or chart paper.

Explain to the students that over the past year, state governments across the country have enacted new laws that could make it significantly harder for as many as 5 million eligible Americans to vote. Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, a type of ID that as many as one in ten voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popular process used by millions of Americans. Still others have made it much more difficult for citizens to register to vote. These new restrictions fall most heavily on young people, the elderly, African-Americans and Latinos, low-income voters, and voters with disabilities.

The people and groups working to pass stricter voter ID laws say they are doing it because there is too much voter fraud. They argue that people can easily register under the names of deceased citizens, double register, or even vote without citizenship. 

However, Republican election officials who promised to root out voter fraud so far are finding little evidence of a widespread problem. State officials in key presidential battleground states have found only a tiny fraction of the illegal voters  they had expected to find.  For example, searches in Colorado and Florida have yielded numbers that amount to less than one-tenth of 1% of all registered voters in either state.  Democrats say the searches waste time and, worse, could disenfranchise eligible voters who are swept up in the checks.

Tell students that U.S. courts have struck down several of the state voter suppression laws. However, the laws stand in other states - and voting rights advocates worry that even in states where laws have been blocked, publicity about the laws will discourage voters from going to the polls.


Small Group Project on Voter Suppression

To learn more about specific voter suppression tactics, have students divide into four groups, each group working on one of these types of voter suppression: 

  • Voter ID laws

  • Proof of citizenship laws

  • Making voter registration harder

  • Restricting early in-person and early absentee voting

Give students in each of the four groups copies of the Fact Sheet (see below;  or click here for pdf version) for their type of voter suppression.  Each group will read and discuss the sheet. (If time permits, also have students do some of their own research using the internet resources below.) Each group will prepare a summary of the voter suppression law to present to the class. In addition, each group will create a public education campaign piece that will:

  • educate voters in the affected states about their particular voter suppression law

  • provide a strategy or strategies to make sure that everybody who is eligible to vote will be able to vote in the election

Each group can choose among the three options below.

  • Using poster board, create a sample billboard that would be displayed in states with these laws

  • Create a facebook page (and/or twitter and tumblr) to raise awareness about their particular law

  • Create a video PSA (public service announcement) or an audio announcement about the issue that includes solutions.

The small group work can be part of one class period (with the rest done for homework) or you can give an additional class period and the students can complete it during class.
Give each group 10 minutes to share their summaries and projects with the rest of the class. 
As a whole class, discuss the issue of voter suppression. Ask students:

  • What did you learn about these new voter suppression laws?

  • Why do you think they are being passed?

  • Do you think it is positive or negative?  Why?

  • What should people in those states do in order to make sure eligible voters can vote?

  • What should other people do about it?




Have each student complete the sentence:  One thing I learned about voting rights and voter suppression is _______________________________________________.

Additional Resources for Further Research:
Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Voter ID Laws
Project Vote: State Voter Registration Guides
State ID laws: 10 million Hispanic voters could be affected, study says
Brennan Center for Justice: The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Registration
Brennan Center for Justice: Voting Law Changes in 2012
Infographic on Voter Suppression
Information sources for Fact Sheets:
Brennan Center for Justice 



Fact Sheet: Voter ID Laws

According to federal law, first-time voters who register by mail are required to present a photo ID or copy of a current bill or bank statement. Some states generally advise voters to bring some form of photo ID. But until the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. In 2006, Indiana became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law. The Indiana law was upheld two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The number of states with laws requiring voters to show government-issued photo ID quadrupled in 2011.  At least 34 states have introduced laws that would require voters to show photo identification in order to vote, and an additional four states introduced legislation requesting that voters show photo identification to register or to vote.
Photo ID bills were actually signed into law in eight states: Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and passed by referendum in Mississippi. Minnesota's legislature has passed a bill proposing a constitutional amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that would require a government-issued photo ID to vote in person (this will be voted on in the 2012 general election).
Voter ID laws make it harder for millions of Americans to vote:  According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 11% of American citizens do not currently possess a government-issued photo ID. That is over 21 million citizens. In Pennsylvania, nearly 760,000 registered voters, or 9.2% of the state's 8.2 million voter base, don't own state-issued ID cards.  In Indiana and Georgia, states with the earliest versions of photo ID laws, about 1,300 provisional votes were discarded in the 2008 general election, later analysis revealed.
The people trying to enact stricter voter ID laws say they are doing it because there is too much voter fraud.   They argue that people can easily register under the names of deceased citizens, double register, or even vote without citizenship.  However, Republican election officials who promised to root out voter fraud so far are finding little evidence of a widespread problem.  State officials in key presidential battleground states found only a tiny fraction of the illegal voters they had expected. 
People who are opposed to the voter ID laws say that they place unnecessary roadblocks in the way of voters, discouraging people go to the polls.  What's more, they argue, voter ID laws  disproportionately affect seniors, students, and African American, Latino, disabled, and low-income voters - all of whom are more likely to vote Democratic.  According to the League of Women Voters:

  • 18 percent of elderly citizens do not have a government-issued photo ID.
  • 15 percent of voters earning less than $35,000 a year do not have a photo ID.
  • 18 percent of citizens aged 18-24 do not have a government-issued ID with their current address and name.
  • 10 percent of voters with disabilities do not have a photo ID. 
  • 25 percent of African-American citizens of voting age do not have a current, government-issued ID

Obtaining a photo ID can be costly and burdensome, with even free state ID requiring documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25 in some places. Many people in rural areas have to travel a long way to get to government offices to obtain an ID. Disabled people face extra challenges as well. The result is that Voter ID laws will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans to vote.
Some opponents of voter ID laws believe they are a conscious attempt to change the outcome of elections.  PA House Republican Leader Mike Turzai leant support to that view when he was captured on video in June 2012 noting with approval that the state's new voter ID law would ensure a Romney win. A judge later temporarily blocked the law from taking effect during the 2012 election season. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuOT1bRYdK8)


Fact Sheet: Proof of Citizenship Laws

A person must be a US citizen over 18 years old to be eligible to vote. A voter usually establishes eligibility by signing an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that s/he is a US citizen of voting age and meets all the other eligibility requirements.
In the past two years, at least 17 states have introduced legislation that would require proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, to register or vote. Proof of citizenship laws have passed in Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee. The Tennessee law, however, applies only to individuals flagged by state officials as potential non-citizens based on a database check.
Previously, only two states had passed proof of citizenship laws, and only one had put such a requirement in effect. The number of states with such a require­ment has more than doubled.
Until recently, no state has ever required a voter to produce documentary proof of citizenship or age or any other aspect of eligibility to participate in elections.
Acceptable documents include: driver's or non-driver's ID that includes a notation that the person submitted proof of citizenship, US birth certificate, passport, US naturalization documents, certain tribal IDs.
Proponents of these laws claim that proof of citizenship requirements are needed to prevent non-citizens from illegally voting in elections. In several states, proponents claimed to have uncovered evidence of such illegal voting. Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, for example, claimed that up to 11,805 non-citizens were registered to vote in Colorado, while Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach claimed to have found 67 noncitizens illegally registered to vote in Kansas. These claims were hotly disputed, and they have since been debunked, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Opponents claimed that proof of citizenship requirements exclude large numbers of eligible voters, pointing out that millions of eligible Americans—at least 7% according to a leading study by the Brennan Center-- do not have ready access to the documents needed to prove citizenship.

Opponents further dispute the claim that there is a problem of non-citizen voting in American elections, pointing out that only a minuscule number of non-citizens have been found to have voted illegally, and that it is already easy to catch non-citizen voters since they leave a clear paper trail.


Fact Sheet: Restricting Early In-Person and Mail Voting

For years, there has been tremendous growth in state laws that allow early voting.  Early voting can including letting people go to voting sites weeks before election day, as well as voting by mail (often called "absentee voting").  In 2000, the majority of Americans still voted at their local polling places on Election Day. Less than 4% voted at early voting sites and 10% voted by mail.  But by 2008, more than one-third of American voters voted early. 
2011 was the first year that progress was stalled in the move toward early voting.  Early in-person in particular has come under attack from state legislatures around the country.
The primary benefit of voting early is convenience.  Voters get more options and days during which they can vote. There is little evidence that early and absentee voting increases turnout overall. But  it seems to make elections on Election Day run more smoothly, reducing the crush of voters at the polling places on one single day.  It's a way to address long lines at polling places on Election Day - lines that often discourage people from voting.
In the past, both Democrats and Republicans have supported early voting. But the past two years, most (though not all) of the new restrictions on early voting have been proposed by Republicans. At least nine states—Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia—all considered bills to reduce their early voting periods this year.
At least four states—Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin—introduced bills to change or add new restrictions on absentee voting.
Those who have tried to restrict early voting argue that it costs too much and requires too much administrative work. Some have also argued that restricting early voting  will reduce fraud.
People who favor early voting laws argue that they encourage people to vote. They are concerned that restricting early voting will reduce turnout among people of color. In particular, they worry that efforts to eliminate Sunday early voting has a disproportionate effect on African American and Latino voters, who vote in greater numbers on Sundays than whites.  Florida eliminated early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day and Ohio has eliminated early voting on Sundays entirely. 



Fact Sheet: Making Voter Registration Harder

In all states except one, citizens must be registered in order to vote.  Experts point out that our country's outdated registration system is among the most significant barriers to voting, resulting in the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans during every federal election.
Voter registration rates in the US are routinely lower than they are in other democracies around the world: more than a quarter of voting-age Americans are not registered and cannot vote as a result.  In other democracies, the government, at some level, assumes responsibility for getting voters registered. But in the US, we leave registration up to individual voters.  Community-based voter registration drives play an important role in encouraging and assisting people to register to vote. These efforts have been especially important in enabling low-income citizens, students, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, and people with disabilities to vote. 
Over the past few decades, there has been a push to ease the registration requirements to make it easier for eligible citizens to get on the voter rolls.  The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 made voter registration opportunities widely available around the country.
During the 2004 general election, large-scale voter registration drives reportedly helped almost 10 million citizens to register to vote.  In one county in Florida alone, voter registration organizations were responsible for registering 62.7% of all newly registered voters.  National census data show that Latino and African-American voters are twice as likely to register to vote through a voter registration drive as white voters.
This year, the tide has turned: New requirements will make it more difficult to ensure that people get registered in time for Election Day.  The people pushing for these requirements maintain that voter registration drives are prone to fraud.  Some argue that voter registration should be made more difficult to reflect the importance of the right to vote. 
A number of states have pushed legislation to regulate and restrict community-based voter registration drives.  Bills placing restrictions on voter registration groups have been proposed in at least 7 states: California, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas.
These bills require citizen registration groups to register with the state before undertaking a voter registration drive.  They may also require special training for volunteers, the use of special forms, disclosure, and reporting systems, or short deadlines for the submission of voter registration forms.  Violation of these rules usually carries penalties.
There has also been a rollback in state laws that allow people to register on the same day that they vote. Before 2011, eight states allowed for Election Day Registration:  Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. 
Opponents of Election Day Registration argue that it invites voter fraud. Bills to eliminate EDR were introduced in 5 states: Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio.