Who Can Vote? A Battle over Voter Suppression in 2020

August 26, 2020

Will voter suppression skew the results of the 2020 election? Students examine current efforts to suppress voting in the context of U.S. history and learn about efforts to defend voting rights.


To the Teacher:

In this lesson, students examine current efforts to suppress voting in the context of U.S. history. Students will learn about the various tactics that have been employed to discourage specific groups of voters as well as efforts to defend voting rights.

Consider introducing the subject briefly in one session and assigning the reading as homework. In the next session, engage students in discussion, either as a whole class or through breakout groups, followed by a regroup to compare notes.



Introduction and Assignment

Read these quotes out loud to students:

“This is all about suppressing the vote,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said.

“I am not engaged in sabotaging the election,” an increasingly exasperated Mr. DeJoy told Democrats. “We will do everything in our power and structure to deliver the ballots on time.”

Ask students:

  • What are these two speakers referring to?
  • Have you seen or read any news about this issue?
  • What is at stake in this conflict?

Elicit or explain that these quotes are from a testy exchange between Louis DeJoy, the Trump administration’s Postmaster General, and members of the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee. In testimony before the committee on August 24, 2020, DeJoy defended the administration against charges that recent cuts to the U.S. Postal Service would make it less likely that people’s votes by mail would be counted in the 2020 presidential election on November 3. Mail-in voting is especially crucial this election year, since it will allow voters to avoid Covid risk at polling stations.

Share this quote from the Washington Post:

Mr. DeJoy, a megadonor to President Trump, is embroiled in a political firestorm as recent changes aimed at reducing the Postal Service’s costs — including cutting overtime and limiting trips — have led to delays in mail delivery, including medicine, pension checks and bills. That has fueled concerns about whether the service will be able to handle what is expected to be a record number of mail-in ballots for the 2020 election.

Mr. DeJoy, at times shouting over his Democratic questioners, criticized the “false narrative” that he said was being promoted about both his intentions and the changes, which he described as necessary to address the Postal Service’s financial woes but that civil rights groups, state attorneys general and Democrats have derided as an attempt to disenfranchise voters.

The  U.S. has a long history of limiting the ability of Americans to vote. This history began in the colonial era and continues today. In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, civil rights organizations, activists, politicians, and many others are concerned about not only cuts to postal service, but many other barriers that may keep people from voting, or having their vote counted, in 2020.

Ask students:

  • Are you concerned about “voter suppression” in the 2020 election? Why or why not?
  • Are people in your family or community facing barriers to voting? What are they? How might these barriers be overcome?

Ask students to read this handout as homework. (The reading is also at the bottom of the lesson.) The reading puts the voting rights controversy in the context of U.S. history and explores current barriers to voting and the fight to overcome them. You’ll discuss the reading in your next class.

When the class reconvenes, engage them in discussion about one or more of the following questions.


Where technically possible, break up the class into small groups to discuss one or more of the following questions. After fifteen minutes of discussion, give groups or individual student to report their conclusions. Alternatively, engage the whole class in one or more of the questions below.

  1. What is one of your top takeaways from the reading? Why did this strike you?
  1. Why do you think legislators pass voter suppression laws? Are lawmakers genuinely concerned about voter fraud?
  2. Voter suppression laws have had a disproportionate effect on people of color and college students. Why?
  1. Do you plan to vote when you turn 18? Why or why not?
  1. Should people younger than 18 be allowed to vote? Why or why not?
  2. Should those convicted of felonies be allowed to vote? Why or why not?
  1. How is the fight for voting rights different now than it was during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? What do you know about current efforts to protect or extend voting rights?
  1. Are you concerned that someone in your family or community will not be able to vote – or not have their vote counted?  Why?
  2. What strategies do you think would increase voter turnout in your community? Why those strategies?
  3. Are there other meaningful ways to participate in the political process, other than voting?



Extension Activities

Invite students to research obstacles to voting in their family and community.

  • Ask students to interview family members and older friends about their plans for voting
  • Ask students to search for information about voting rights concerns in their area. 

Then engage students in a discussion about what they have learned.

Invite them to consider what steps they might take to ensure that people in their family, community (or state or country) will be able to vote in November.



Reading: A Battle Over Access to Voting 

pdf version

Voter Suppression Then 

Who gets to vote in the United States and who doesn’t has been a contentious issue since the nation’s founding.

In colonial America, voting was reserved for men who owned property or who belonged to a particular religion. It took a Civil War to officially grant full citizenship to African-Americans – and the enfranchisement for people of color is still a pressing issue 150 years later. We are just now celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. Native Americans did not receive full voting rights in all states until 1948.

Elections are run by states, and all states, though bound by broad federal laws, create their own rules for voting.

Since the official enfranchisement of African-Americans, voter suppression (efforts to keep people from voting) has been rampant and has taken many forms. Until the Civil Rights Movement, in the South particularly, whites actively and openly blocked Black voters from voting through a combination of laws, intimidation, and violence.

Racist suppression tactics included:

  • A fee (poll tax) for voting, which prevented poor people from voting. A “grandfather clause” exempted many whites from the tax if their ancestors had voted.
  • “Literacy tests” were used to disqualify Black voters who tried to register to vote – while exempting white voters through “grandfather clauses” and other means. County registrars were free to administer easy questions to white applicants and impossible ones to blacks. For a glimpse of what a literacy test looked like in Alabama circa 1965, see this scene from the movie Selma.
  • Bureaucratic rules, arbitrarily applied, required longtime residency, frequent re-registration, street addresses, registration during planting season, and similar creative approaches gave officials discretion in applying the regulations.
  • For those African-Americans who might insist on registering to vote, sheriffs and police were employed to bully, threaten, and intimidate them at the courthouse.
  • The Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist white supremacist organizations openly “monitored” polling stations to note individuals attempting to defy the whites-only voting norm.
  • Countless beatings and even lynchings set the stage for the near total absence of African-American voters in much of the South for decades.

The discriminatory laws passed by individual states were routinely allowed by federal officials—including the Supreme Court. Nor were the motivations for the laws and regulations well hidden.

“In my state there were 135,000 Negro voters, or Negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters.... Now, I want to ask you, with a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000? How are you going to do it? You had set us an impossible task.

We did not disfranchise the Negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the Negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina today as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his ‘rights’—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will.... I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores.”

--Senator Benjamin Tillman (SC), 1895


Voter Suppression Now

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 limited the power of states with a history of voter discrimination to pass laws restricting voting rights.  It required that states with a history of discrimination in voting had to have new voting laws “precleared” by the federal government.

Since the Civil Rights Movement, laws that explicitly disenfranchised African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Native Americans are no longer on the books. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses have been banned by Supreme Court rulings.

But now new  laws, rules, and procedures continue to target specific groups of voters, particularly Black and brown voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. And now new movements and networks are stepping up once again to defend and extend people’s right to vote.

In 2013, the Supreme Court handed down a major decision making it easier for states to enact laws intended to suppress African-American votes. In Shelby v. Holder, the Court essentially eliminated the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by invalidating that law’s requirement that states get new voting laws “precleared.”

In the wake of the decision, Republican legislatures rushed to create new laws to reduce the number of Democratic voters. Communities wanting to challenge new discriminatory voting laws have had to file suits themselves or rely on Justice Department suits or challenges from outside advocates—sometimes after the discriminatory laws have already taken effect.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in the years following Shelby (2012-2018), almost 1700 polling places were eliminated in states covered by the Voting Rights Act.

The enthusiasm for voter suppression wasn’t limited to the states specified in the Voting Rights Act. Virtually all “red” (heavily Republican) states passed legislation to reduce the number of voters in groups deemed to lean Democratic. These efforts were aided by sophisticated data analysis which enabled them to pinpoint who was voting for the “wrong” party and where they lived. Based on this data, a variety of laws were passed which targeted Democratic voters.

Republican supporters of these efforts, say that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud. “Every vote cast illegally undermines the integrity of the system and the rights of legitimate voters,” argued the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “In close elections, fraud could undermine our democratic will.”  President Trump has repeatedly claimed that “voter fraud is very, very common.”

But in examining these claims, the organization FactCheck.org found that “numerous academic studies and government inquiries have found in-person voter fraud to be rare.” The Brennan Center for Justice, in The Truth About Voter Fraud, found the incidence of such fraud occurred at a rate “between .0003 percent and .0025 percent.” Their report Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth cites numerous studies which found that most claims of fraud were due to clerical errors.

Some of the more popular measures now used to suppress the vote include:

Selective elimination of polling places

Cities, counties, or even neighborhoods with concentrations of suspected Democratic voters are targeted for reduced number of polling locations, long lines, and malfunctioning machines. The Brennan Center examined the 2012 and 2016 elections, and found that the longest lines for voting were in areas with large Latinx or Black populations. In one heavily Latinx county in Arizona, polling places were cut by two-thirds, and voters waited an average of four hours to vote. In 2018, Ford County, Kansas, election officials moved the only polling place in (majority Latinx) Dodge City outside the city to a location inaccessible by bus.

Limiting early voting

Historically, African-Americans have used early voting far more than whites, so restricting early voting has been a common tactic in Republican-led states. (Early voting means that voters can complete and return their ballots in the days and weeks before Election Day.) In Guilford County, North Carolina, for example, which has a large Black population, early voting locations were reduced from sixteen down to one in 2016. In North Carolina, where 70% of Black voters vote early, the dates for early voting were reduced from seventeen days to ten. In Ohio, where Black voters used early voting twice as often as white voters, the state cut the six most popular days as well as Sundays and weekday evenings.

Voter ID Laws

In order to fight the rare or nonexistent fraud, dozens of states have enacted strict laws requiring certain forms of identification in order to vote. The new rules require government-issued IDs, photo IDs, and/or proof of citizenship. Such laws have been found to disproportionately affect people of color and marginalized communities. A Texas law permitted gun licenses as ID, but not college identification cards. A federal court invalidated North Carolina’s ID laws after it determined that the provisions "target African Americans with almost surgical precision." The court concluded:

"With race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans… The bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess."

Blocking and purging voter registrations

Purging voter registration rolls is necessary to remove people who have died, moved out of state, or are otherwise no longer eligible to vote. Between 2016 and 2018, about 17 million names were purged. Unfortunately, the data used to create the purge lists are notoriously error-prone and subject to manipulation. A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute  concluded that “Ten percent of Black respondents and 11 percent of Hispanic respondents reported that they were incorrectly told that they weren’t listed on voter rolls, as opposed to 5 percent of white respondents.” The study also showed that people of color were three times as likely to be told at the polling site that their ID was insufficient.

More targeted groups: Students and Native Americans

Just before a 2018 contested Senate election in North Dakota, the state legislature decreed that IDs and mail-in ballots must have a specific street address. This primarily affected Native Americans living on reservations, where street addresses (and Republican votes) are uncommon.

A Michigan law required voters to have only one address. Out-of-state college students with ID showing a home address were disqualified. In Wisconsin, college IDs were okay, but only those with a two-year expiration date. A Florida law determined that early voting locations must have sufficient parking places for the number of anticipated voters. The problem for the 60,000 on-campus voters was that few campuses offered  much parking space (and many students didn’t need parking because they didn’t even own cars!). In 2019, Texas, after a surge of student voting, the state passed a law requiring that early voting sites be open every day in the twelve-day early voting period. The law effectively banned mobile stations which made voting accessible to campus and rural voters.

Structural flaws

Not all disenfranchisement results from active partisan measures. In 2016, over three million people in American territories (for example, Puerto Rico) and Washington, D.C. were ineligible to vote in U.S. elections. These citizens are disproportionately people of color. An additional six million citizens are disqualified from voting because of felony convictions. Here too, because of racism evident in every step of the criminal justice system, people of color are affected more than whites.

Just as Ku Klux Klan members took to “monitoring” the polls in the 1920s, right-wing organizations and the Republican Party promise to deter “fraud” at the crucial 2020 elections. According to the New York Times, the Republican Party intends to deploy fifty thousand monitors in fifteen key states. One group, called True the Vote, is recruiting military veterans for the effort. Democrats fear that the campaign will echo prior attempts to intimidate and challenge voters of color. The Republican Party was forbidden by court order in 1982 from intimidating African-American voters at the polls, but that order has been weakened several times since.

Opposition to voter suppression has largely been conducted in the courts. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, League of Women Voters, Fair Fight Action (organized by Stacey Abrams) and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have fought back against suppression tactics and have won some important victories.

Many other organizations are working to ensure that voters – especially people of color – have the right to vote in 2020, including Reclaim Our Vote, Hispanic Federation, Color of Change, Voto Latino, BlackPac, Woke Vote, Black to the Ballot, and When We All Vote.

The 2020 elections are likely to reflect the tensions of a country increasingly divided. If the election is close, or if the results are disputed or if the President refuses to accept defeat, those tensions could result in an unprecedented political crisis.