The Right to Vote in the United States and How It’s Suppressed

Elianna Schimke, Staff Writer

Throughout US history, there have been deliberate efforts to limit who can vote, typically to keep political power structures in place that benefit rich white men. Yet there have been many important movements that expanded the right to vote to women, language minorities, racial minorities, the lower class and people with disabilities–all of whom tend to vote for reform and against traditional power structures. From the first official US election in 1788, when only rich white men could vote, to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory practices that suppressed minority votes, democracy in the United States has expanded significantly. However, ever since that turning point legislation in 1965, it seems that there has been an unfortunate step back in voting inclusiveness. 

Cheryl Duncan, a history teacher at Minnetonka, said that “in the 19th century, and then into the 20th with women gaining the right to vote, the story of democracy has been one of increasing the ability and ease of voting, and to see it go into the other direction is jarring and worrying.”

After passage of the Voting Rights Act, more people of color became involved in the democratic process, which allowed more people of color to be elected to represent the people; this led to pushback and attempts to reduce the power of the 1965 legislation.

 The biggest step back was in 2013 with the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder. As a result of this case, section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was gutted on the basis of the Constitution; this allowed the return of many discriminatory voting practices that limit the voting power of the black population. 

The importance of black votes was clear in Georgia during the 2020 election, a state where Stacy Abrams fought extremely hard to get people of color to the polls. Her efforts paid off as Georgia flipped blue by a close margin. 

Abrams founded Fair Fight Action in 2018, which is an organization made to address voter suppression, and her work has been nothing short of impactful. Despite the undeniable success of Abrams’ efforts, however, democracy should function without people needing to devote their career to stopping voter suppression.

Patty Robben, ‘21, worked as a student election judge in the 2020 election and was able to help many voters register to vote, some even for the first time, which she described as “a very empowering experience.” 

Robben said that “voting is a concrete way to express your opinion and participate in the government, but it’s also a way to show respect for everyone who fought for you to have the right to vote in the first place.”

On the importance of voting, Duncan said, “In a country as complicated as ours and a country as large as ours, for many people, it’s the only chance to make their voice heard.” Duncan also said that “with the right to vote, you have a sense of citizenship and responsibility. When that is restricted, and you have no voice, then your sense of belonging and your fundamental identity as a citizen of a country is suppressed.”

When it comes to getting the highest possible voter turnout, ease of voting is everything. This means that strict voter ID laws, sparse polling stations, long lines and inconvenient hours are all factors that can suppress votes. Many also believe that election day should be recognized as a national holiday, which, in theory, would make work hours less of an obstacle in getting voters to the polls. 

While political apathy and voter fatigue is certainly a factor in the US’s low voter turnout, it’s not the sole reason; overly-complicated voting procedures can also take a significant portion of the blame. Minnesota consistently has impressive voter turnout compared to other US states and that can be at least partially attributed to laws that make it relatively easy to vote, including same-day registration, early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting. 

To reduce voter suppression, there must be laws put in place that make it easier for everyone to vote, including ex-felons. 

A report done by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service in 2010 found that 7.7% of the adult black population is disenfranchised due to ex-felon voting laws, compared to 1.8% of the non-black population. This gap is even more drastic in certain states. The laws regarding ex-felon voting can be manipulated by a state in order to change voter demographics, which is a substantial issue in our democracy. 

On ex-felon disenfranchisement, Duncan said, “I find it wrong for some states to disenfranchise felons. If you have committed a crime, and you have paid your debt to society, I think it makes sense to be reintegrated fully in that society when you come back, and anything that pushes you away or says that you are not a full citizen is probably detrimental.” 

Regarding the same issue, Robben said that “Government officials are supposed to be selected based on the opinion of the country’s citizens. When certain blocks of people, like ex-felons, lose their right to vote, we risk electing leaders who do not represent the values or opinions of all citizens.”

Another thing to consider is that as society enters this digital age, there is also the threat of voter suppression on large scales using the Internet. In a seemingly lawless space, dirty tactics can be used to prevent certain populations from going to the polls. 

This can look like misinformation regarding candidates or voting procedures or more deliberate methods such as bots that impersonate black activists and encourage people to vote third party, which was done in the 2016 election. Although this method doesn’t directly suppress voters, it can still have a huge impact on voter turnout from certain demographics and should be more closely monitored by social media companies. Another significant way in which Internet usage can skew voting is how it can create a filter bubble, where people’s ideologies can shift or be confirmed based on the media they’re consuming. 

On this topic, Robben said that “social media [has] created an environment where many people [get] news from the perspectives they agree with, instead of a variety of sources.”

Even after centuries of progress, democracy in such a large and diverse country is inevitably challenging, and it is a fight that must continue to be fought. One thing is sure: some politicians will continue to do whatever they can do in order to win, even if that means deliberately limiting the voting power of certain populations. If there’s a takeaway from this fact, it is that we should be hyper-aware of our voting rights and try our best to advocate for others in hopes of creating a more functional democracy for the future of this nation.