Now, as ever, voter suppression targets communities of color

Voter-suppression laws target communities of color.

By George Hornedo, senior policy advisor, Let America Vote

Decades ago, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement understood that civil rights in America depend on voting rights. That’s why marchers braved tear gas and billy clubs to march from Selma to Montgomery, and why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is widely considered the movement’s signature achievement.

Decades later, voting rights remain inextricably tied to civil rights and the equal opportunity, fair treatment and basic dignity of people of color in America. And, just as in the 1950s and 1960s, they remain under threat.

Across the country, communities of color are still explicitly targeted and disproportionately affected by anti-democratic voter-suppression laws and policies. Race remains the defining battle line in the war over ballot access. The examples are numerous and all around us — and well worth examining in detail.

Voter Identification Laws

ID laws requiring voters to present specific photo identification when they vote either in person or via absentee ballot have proliferated over the last decade and particularly since Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating key elements of the Voting Rights Act.

Permissible IDs can include federal documents like a U.S. passport or state-issued driver’s license and non-driver IDs, but vary widely by state and often are extremely limited. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 34 states require voters to show some form of ID to vote.

These laws create a significant barrier to the ballot box for the 21 million Americans who do not have the required ID, and disproportionately affect communities of color, low-income adults and young people. In North Carolina, a court threw out one version of a voter-ID law in 2016 for targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” This year, North Carolina Republicans are back at it with an amendment writing ID requirements into the state constitution.

A study from researchers at the University of California San Diego, meanwhile, found that “strict photo identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections.”

The Washington Post referring to the study displayed the below graph to illustrate the turnout gap between whites and Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans in states with and without strict voter ID laws.

In general elections in non-strict states, for instance, the gap between white and Latino turnout is on average 4.9 points. But in states with strict ID laws, that gap grows to a substantial 13.2 points, and the gap between white turnout and Asian American and African American turnout also increases. The effect is even more dramatic in primary elections.

Polling Place Closures and Consolidations

Since Shelby, we’ve seen local election officials around the country move to close or consolidate polling places, often with clearly partisan implications.

In Georgia, for example, the Hancock County Board of Elections in 2015 proposed closing nine of its 10 voting precincts, creating an unfair travel burden for voters in the county’s majority-black precincts. Just this summer in Georgia, the Randolph County Board of Elections considered a plan to close seven polling places in majority-black areas, ultimately rejecting it amid national outcry.

Fewer polling places naturally imply longer distances for voters to travel, longer lines and more voter confusion—all of which can result in fewer people casting ballots. When these closures occur in minority-majority communities and jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination, people of color can be disproportionately impacted.

Limits on Early Voting

One solution for voters faced with polling closures could be voting early. But election officials have moved to enact restrictions there, too. Early voting has many forms, including in-person early voting and absentee voting by mail, and is increasingly being adopted by voters across the country.

According to a recent study by the United States Election Assistance Commission, the “total number of voters who voted early, absentee or by mail more than doubled from 24.9 million in 2004 to 57.2 million in 2016.” A study by the Brennan Center found numerous benefits to early voting, including reduced stress on the voting system; shorter lines on Election Day; improved poll worker performance; early identification and correction of registration errors and voting-system glitches; and greater access to voting and increased voter satisfaction.

Still, many states have moved to limit, rather than expand, early voting. A 2017 law passed in Iowa cut the state’s early-vote window from 40 to 29 days. In 2017, several North Carolina counties cut voting locations and polling hours during the state’s early vote period, leading to a demonstrable drop in African American turnout. In Georgia, Republicans introduced legislation in 2018 eliminating Sunday voting and cutting polling hours for the city of Atlanta, a blatant attempt to suppress the state’s African-American vote. Fortunately, the bill was defeated.


One way to make it harder for people to vote is to remove them from the voter rolls altogether  —  chicanery that happens much more often than you might think. These so-called “purges” are often done in the name of keeping voter rolls “up to date,” but can, in fact, be ordered by elected officials to kick certain voters off the rolls. Georgia and Ohio have recently removed thousands of voters from the rolls for simply not voting, a practice upheld this summer in a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a dissenting opinion on that case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed to an example cited in an NAACP brief to argue that voter purges disproportionately affect communities of color: “Amici point to an investigation that revealed that in Hamilton County, ‘African-American-majority neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati had 10% of their voters removed due to inactivity’ since 2012, as ‘compared to only 4% of voters in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood.’”

In the Ohio case, further, voters were dropped from the rolls when they failed to respond to a letter from the state asking them to confirm their addresses. But that confirmation notice was sent in English only, potentially raising compliance challenges for Latinos and underscoring another potentially discriminatory failing in the purge process.


For too long, politicians have manipulated our democratic process to disqualify voters who threaten their political power. Across the decades and still today, communities of color are the primary targets for these manipulations. Now, though, vote-suppressing politicians increasingly enjoy legal cover from the courts and President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice.

The time has come to take the fight for voting rights beyond the court of law and into the court of public opinion. That is Let America Vote’s mission, and it’s why we’re working across the country this year to throw vote-suppressing politicians out of office and replace them with voting-rights champions.

Join our fight by texting VOTE to 44939 and helping us fight voter suppression and support candidates and policies that will make our elections freer, fairer, and more accessible.