Widening the Lens on Voter Suppression

Background and Overview

Background and Overview

BETWEEN 2012 AND 2016, a wave of new voting restrictions were enacted in states across the country. The US Supreme Court paved the way for many of these laws with its controversial 2013 ruling on the Voting Rights Act (VRA).1 In a 5-4 decision, the Court rendered unenforceable key provisions of the VRA that required certain jurisdictions to secure prior federal approval—meant to prevent discrimination—for any changes to voting or registration rules. For many states, 2016’s presidential election was the first contest regulated by new restrictions on how people may register to vote, cast ballots, and prove their identities at the polls. Often referred to collectively as “voter suppression laws,” such legislation was passed in at least 13 states between 2012 and 2016.2

Laws that eliminate same-day voter registration,3 or allow voters to access the ballot using a concealed-handgun license but not a student ID,4 have always raised red flags with people serious about voting rights—and for good reason. But since the 2016 elections, interest in voter suppression among the broader public has surged. With the wealth of data on 2016’s electoral outcomes now available, researchers also have richer empirical bases for moving from analyzing laws’ potential to actual effects.

In the following section, I begin by reviewing the case against restrictive voting reforms as it stood even prior to the latest round of studies. I show that researchers have long agreed that these reforms discourage and impede eligible voters from casting ballots, while providing no real benefit. The impact on voters is also borne disproportionately by certain subgroups, and there are clear indications that this is intentional—driven by the perception that it will deliver partisan political gains. I argue that these facts alone constitute a strong voting-rights argument against the restrictive laws—irrespective of the laws’ aggregate effect on an election.

The brief’s subsequent section proceeds to evaluate research on restrictive voting laws that has shaped conversations since November 2016. The studies in question have generated vigorous debates among scholars, journalists, and other researchers over how to estimate how many votes these laws suppress. The brief examines these debates—and the methodological dilemmas they reveal—in some detail, with two goals in mind. First is to explain why it is so hard to know voter suppression—why even after more than a year of extensive analysis, researchers still cannot say with certainty how many votes were suppressed in 2016.

But second, and more important, is to point to the lessons about fighting voter suppression that we can extract from these challenges to quantifying it. In brief, I argue that the roles of myriad other factors—misinformation, voter ambivalence, limited civic-institutional infrastructure, and so on—in curtailing the exercise of the franchise remind us something important:

Voting restrictions depend on other structural causes to suppress the vote. This opens up a broader view on what it could, and should, mean to fight back against voter suppression.

  • 1. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
  • 2. ACLU, “Voter Suppression Laws: What’s New Since the 2012 Presidential Election.” Georgia and Rhode Island also had restrictive voting laws on the books dating to 2011.
  • 3. Aaron Blake, “North Carolina governor signs extensive Voter ID law,” The Washington Post, August 12, 2013.
  • 4. Rebecca Leber, “In Texas, You Can Vote With a Concealed Handgun License—but not a Student ID,” New Republic, October 20, 2014.