Voter Suppression: Turning Democracy Into a To-Do List

The romanticization of American democracy tends to suggest that voting is accessible. Voting is, theoretically, as simple as filling out a ballot and casting it, but for marginalized communities, that isn’t always the case.

Voter suppression is so embedded in our nation’s history that it’s already showing up in the 2020 election, according to Dr. Cristina Mislán, an associate professor of journalism studies at Mizzou.

“We’ve already seen that in Georgia. People were in lines in Texas [for] 11 hours. I can’t imagine,” Mislán said. “There’s economic barriers, there’s policy barriers, there’s, I guess, what you would call just corruption. There’s so much that absolutely prevents millions of people from voting so it’s not as easy as ‘just vote.’”

This presents a challenge for the ideals that the US tries to unfairly claim. The romanticization surrounding American democracy creates an environment that fails to support everyone’s right to have their voices heard.

“It can create a lot of apathy around civic identities – civic processes generally – [and] what it means to be a citizen,” said Dr. Keona Ervin, an associate professor of history at Mizzou. “If a democracy is to be healthy it means that it’s one where people have the power – not just the right – but the power to exercise their voice, to have their voices heard.”

Something that we label as a fundamental aspect of representative democracy has turned into an actual checklist.

Voters need to:

  • Register by a specific date
  • Request an absentee or mail-in ballot by a specific date
  • Make sure that, if their state “purges” voters, they register again by the specific date (oftentimes people aren’t told if they have been purged)
  • Find their polling location (which can be moved pretty close to election day)
  • Make sure that they have time to vote on a specific day of the week that isn’t considered a national holiday
  • Make sure to bring all the correct documentation that their state requires to the polls
  • Follow rules at the polls that can be subjective (such as polls not allowing any “political campaign materials” within a certain distance of the polls, which can result in messages that aren’t inherently political being used as a reason to refuse someone a ballot)
  • Fill out the ballot correctly (which has caused some debate on which ballots will count based on how well they filled in an oval)
  • Have a way to get to and from the polls
  • Be prepared to wait in a line for hours at a time in some places
  • Understand their rights as a voter

From state to state, this list varies in length. It could be longer or shorter, but for people who can’t take off work, can’t stand in a line that long or can’t fit their life to the rigid regulations of voting, their voice isn’t voluntarily quiet — it is silenced.

The reality is that there are so many forms of voter suppression. In fact, not only are people’s votes taken away, they are just considered less important by the structures of the election. For example, one vote in Wyoming has the same electoral power as three votes in California due to the break down of how many people an electoral votes account for.

“I think there’s a lot and it’s complicated because they particularly have made it complicated,” Mislán said. “This should be a really simple thing but it’s not. And I say simple, politics is never simple. I mean the ability to go to the polls and just vote. ‘Just vote,’ that simple phrase, is such an understatement for the actual process that it is.”

The complexities of voting go back as far as American democracy itself. Every few decades a new group had to fight for a vote, and still, America isn’t as free as people think.

“During the late 19th century, there were strategies to get around the 15th Amendment which granted the right to vote to Black men,” Ervin said. “There was the use of poll taxes beyond that point, literacy tests like Understanding Clauses, in other words, ‘Interpret this passage of the Constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar.’ All of these mechanisms. Under that emergence of Jim Crow, we have systematic disfranchisement that lasted for 70 or so years at least.”

This structure is simply undemocratic. There is no way to explain away the inequality that comes from voter suppression.

“There are deep consequences,” Ervin said. “People’s lives are at stake. Their survival is at stake. These issues that we’re voting on are crucial. Who’s in power directly impacts your experience as a young person and it’s the same everywhere.”

Voter suppression isn’t a problem that an individual can solve on their own. It’s a group effort to protect not only your vote but those around you. Learning about voter suppression can be difficult because the problem can feel so big, but it’s important to understand your rights as a voter and how to support other voters during an election.

To learn more about the history of voter suppression here are some helpful video links:



Brief History of Voting in America

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