Voter Suppression & the 2016 Primaries

In some states, voters have stood in line for hours to cast their ballot. Why? In this short Teachable Instant activity, students explore the controversy over voter suppression in the 2016 election.  



1.  Give students a quick quiz.

The definition of voter suppression is:
a)  The practice of squeezing voters into uncomfortably small voting booths.
b)  Instances when those exercising their right to vote are abused or mistreated.
c)  A strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from exercising the right to vote.
d)  Feelings of severe despondency and dejection after voting.
Answer: c)

2.  Read students the following quote:

"We turned out to so many first time voters, particularly the young, and when their voting experience is one of turmoil, hardship and long waiting times, that has an impact on whether they will want to vote in the future."
— Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ)

Ask:  What is the representative talking about?  What have you heard about this problem? 

Elicit or explain that some voters have had a hard time voting in the 2016 primaries, and this has touched off a debate over "voter suppression."  Give students the reading below, or share the content with them before discussing. 


Student Reading:  
What’s happening at the polls?

While the U.S. Constitution forbids interfering with citizens' right to vote, the rules for voting have historically been left to the states. How people vote, where, and when limits who may participate in elections. Consider the variables:

  • minimum age to vote
  • whether previously incarcerated people have the right to vote
  • whether election day is a holiday or not
  • the hours for voting
  • identification needed for voting
  • whether you can register to vote and actually vote on the same day
  • the method of voting (eg, machines, paper ballots...)
  • number and location of polls
  • quality of the machines
  • number of machines
  • the boundaries of voting districts

Social scientists, pollsters, and data crunchers have increasingly been able to identify what groups of people tend to vote in a predictable way. African-Americans, for example, tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. If you are a Republican election official or state legislator and are willing to bend or break the law to help your party win an election, you might consider changing the rules to limit voting in such a way as to disproportionately affect African-Americans. 
Many states with Republican legislatures have enacted restrictions that tend to impact Democratic constituencies more severely—the old, poor, transient, young and people of color.  This includes laws to require voters to present an ID before they can vote. Those who support stricter voter ID laws argue that it prevents voter fraud. They argue that without IDs, people can easily register under the names of deceased citizens, double register, or even vote without citizenship.

Democrats and civil liberties defenders have challenged these restrictions, pointing to evidence that there has been virtually no voter fraud. (For more on this, see our earlier TeachableMoment lesson.)
In the current primaries, voters have encountered a range of obstacles:

  • In Maricopa County, Arizona (which includes Phoenix), thousands of people had to stand in the sun for five hours or more to vote. The number of polling stations had been reduced from 200 in 2012 to 60 in 2016. Counties in Arizona average one polling location per 2,500 voters. In Maricopa County,  21,000 people shared one polling location. A Supreme Court ruling in 2013 struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act that would have made decisions to reduce polling places in ways that have a racial impact subject to federal approval. Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, a Republican, initially defended the closing of polling stations. She told Fox News that voters could have avoided the lines if they had voted earlier (with ballots obtained and completed in advance of primary day).
  • Thousands more throughout Arizona were incorrectly identified as Independents even though they had switched their registration to Democratic in order to vote in the Democratic primary. The "provisional " ballots they were given will not be counted if they are listed as Independents. In voting so far and in polls, Independent voters have strongly supported Bernie Sanders.
  • Six counties in Illinois ran out of ballots, leaving thousands of voters unable to vote. 
  • Several hundred students from Wheaton College were not allowed to register on the day of Illinois' primary, despite a law allowing it.
  • Wisconsin's new strict voter ID law will go into effect for the April 5 primary. While the law requires a public education program to inform voters about the new rules, money for the campaign has still not been allocated.

Most of the complaints about voter suppression have come from Democrats, and from supporters of Bernie Sanders in particular. Sanders does better when there is a high turnout of independent voters and when there is a high turnout in general.
The actual effect of the uncounted votes will not be known for certain. But no matter which candidate gained or lost votes, citizens were denied their right to participate in the process that determines who governs our country. 


For Discussion

1. Should voting rules be the same for everyone, or remain in the hands of individual states and localities?
2. Why would strict voter ID requirements disproportionately affect people of color? Young people? Older people? 
3. On March 17, 2016, a circuit court judge in Illinois issued an injunction granting those who were denied a ballot the right to vote late. An appeals court reversed the order. Should those who are denied a ballot be able to vote later?
4. "Suppression" implies intent. Is it possible that the long lines and insufficient ballots were innocent mistakes?  
5. Have you heard of any other ways that voters have been prevented or discouraged from voting?  What methods were used? What effect do you think it had?
6. Imagine yourself in line to vote behind 300 or more others. How long do you think you’d be willing to wait to cast your vote?