The protests rocking the nation today are expressions of anger over unjust treatment that finds its roots far back in our nation's history. Voting has historically not been open to all and continues to be restricted for many so today's situation requires more than just reaching for the ballot. Still, we continue to call for policy changes through the electoral system. Now is therefore a time to examine how voting is harder for some than for others and how that makes real social change harder to sustain. This page covers issues related to voting and racial justice with a focus on two questions. First, and more broadly, how does voting intersect with issues of racial justice? Second, and more directly, in what ways is voting today harder for people of color?
Our criminal justice system often has a direct impact on voting laws and regulations. The criminal justice system has an overwhelming negative impact on Black and Latinx communities, and members of these communities are significantly more likely to be victims of mass incarceration, creating a structural minority-targeted pattern of voter suppression.
Felony disenfranchisement is the loss of the right to vote due to a felony conviction. The most recent comprehensive state-level research from 2016 found that about 6.1 million Americans were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, with 1 in 13 Black Americans—compared to 1 in 56 non-Black Americans—nationwide having lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction.
Many states have recently changed their laws. Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa is planning to sign an executive order that would restore voting rights to all of the state's people with felony convictions in time for the 2020 election. Iowa is currently the only state that disenfranchises all people with felony convictions for life. In California, voters in 2020 will have the opportunity to vote on a proposition that would restore the right to vote for people on parole. Some other states allow incarcerated people to vote immediately after exiting prison, while others can only vote after completing their parole and all other parts of their sentence. Maine and Vermont stand out as the only states that allow all incarcerated people to vote while in prison.
You can view this map from the Brennan Center that has the most up to date information regarding state-by-state laws on incarcerated disenfranchisement.
This article from the NCSL provides additional background research and tables that show discrepancies in states' laws on people's rights to vote.
Prison gerrymandering is the practice where incarcerated people are counted by the Census Bureau in official counts as living in the place they are imprisoned. Since the census count determines representation, counting incarcerated people in this way inflates counts in areas with prisons and deflates them in areas that incarcerated people come from.
Prison gerrymandering specifically distorts voting power by transferring more to predominantly white, wealthy areas. By counting incarcerated people in the jurisdiction their prison is located during the census, rather than where they’re from, states concentrate representation in rural, mostly white communities (where many jails are) rather than in urban, more diverse neighborhoods. Prison gerrymandering itself violates most state constitutions and statutes, while also being explicitly illegal in 9 states that have passed legislation outlawing it.
This resource page from the Prison Policy Initiative contains most resources you would need on the topic of prison gerrymandering. From introductory information, how to get involved, data on your specific location, and podcasts and articles, this page has it all.
This article from NPR also covers the issue well with an approachable style.
These organizations/resources are working to address the problem of felony disenfranchisement, prison gerrymandering, and other criminal justice-related issues.
Sentencing Project is a non-profit that advocates for reforms in sentencing policies and against unjust racial disparities. They also highlight the problem of mass incarceration and provide educational. resources and opportunities for action.
Prison Policy Initiative is a non-partisan non-profit that fights against mass incarceration and prison gerrymandering. Their efforts have successfully changed how district lines are drawn in 7 states and 200+ municipalities. Their Prisoners of the Census webpage also has lots of information and resources on the issue of prison gerrymandering to educate yourself.
The Appeal provides a helpful map and spreadsheet guides to finding where criminal justice candidates are running in 2020. You can use this resource to find out who will be on your ballot and in charge of your municipality and county's criminal justice apparatus.
Across the nation, many states have passed laws that restrict the right to vote in ways that disproportionately affect people of color. These structural limitations, such as voter ID laws, stop many Black and Latinx Americans from voting often before they even get to the ballot box. In the process, they silence voices in these communities.
Voter ID laws require voters to show some form of official identification on Election Day to vote. 7 states require strict photo ID and 27 states require either strict non-photo ID, a photo ID requested, or an ID requested but a photo is not required. Check out this map to see your state’s requirements.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 25% of Black voting-age citizens do not have a current government-issued photo ID. In comparison, 8% of white voting-age citizens do not have a current government-issued photo ID.
This article from FiveThirtyEight gives a good overview of the state of voter ID laws and cites a number of other important studies.
As EVC has previously highlighted, gerrymandering allows politicians to “pick” the voters who support them to maximize their advantage, rather than allowing voters picking their political leaders. Gerrymandering also disproportionately affects people of color, and especially Black people. Why does this happen? There are a few ways.
District lines in some states are drawn to “pack” in as many people of color, safely Democratic voters, into as few districts as possible. Republicans can then pick up other districts more reliably, since they will have a more concentrated white constituency who are more dependable voters for Republicans.
On the other hand, Democrats can gain advantages by “cracking” districts. By spreading out communities of color between multiple districts, they can more reliably secure victory in those districts and not waste as many votes in non-competitive races, such as those that occur in a “packed" district.
Both of these tactics can also be used in reverse depending on the circumstances. For example, Republicans also sometimes "crack" a Democratic district by spreading out their voters into multiple districts which individually have a slim chance at electing a Democrat.
This article from ProPublica discusses racial gerrymandering and how it has been used as an effective tool to suppress people of color for many decades.
Voter roll purging is the removal of eligible, registered voters from voting lists due to claims of ineligibility to vote. Though clean voter rolls are good, there are important differences between maintenance and purging. Purges usually occur too close to elections to correct any mistakes, causing legitimate voters accidentally swept up in the purge to be barred from casting a ballot. Purges often also clear out voters who have smaller errors, such as a misspelled name or non-matching signatures, whereas maintenance focuses on removing people who are deceased or who have not voted in a few election cycles. Some states have declared voter roll purging as illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nevertheless, voter roll purging still persists today, particularly in states that have a history of discriminatory voting practices.
This article from the Brennan Center gives a good overview of voter roll purging and discusseshow its impacts
Mail ballot rejection due to signature matching also disproportionately disenfranchise people of color. While 99% of mail ballots are counted in each election, the Election Assistance Commission found that the top reason for a ballot being rejected was due to the signature on the ballot not matching the one on record, which some states require. People of color were more than two and a half times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected for this reason.
This article from NCSL discusses signature matching and gives state-by-state guidelines.
These organizations/resources are working to address the problems of voter ID laws, gerrymandering, voter roll purging, and signature matching requirements, among other issues.
The ACLU is a law-based organization that works to defend civil liberties all around the nation. In this crisis, they are especially focused on Black people's disenfranchisement at the ballot box and provide constantly updated information on the state of litigation surrounding the most recent disenfranchisement laws.
Racial Equity Tools is an organization is an educational resource that provides a variety of materials dedicated to voting, in addition to other topics. They also supply a number of options for action listed below their resources.
Some restrictions to voter participation are the result of technical barriers that make it practically difficult to vote. Often, these limitations have a disproportionate effect on people of color. Many of these restrictions are closely connected to legislation, and laws can be passed to address these limitations and make the system of voting more fair.
Poll closures, which condense more voters into a single voting station, can create a myriad of issues on Election Day. Long lines, overcrowding, and inaccessibility are all likely outcomes. This issue has become increasingly intertwined with racial justice in recent years after the landmark Supreme Court case, Shelby v. Holder. In 2013, Shelby County, Alabama filed a lawsuit to declare Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Section 5 requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to propose changes in voting procedures before they go into effect. The Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 was constitutional. The lawsuit, however, also contested Section 4(b) which determines what jurisdictions are covered by Section 5. The court agreed and ruled Section 4(b) as unconstitutional because it was based on an old formula. Without Section 4(b), states can close polling places at their own discretion without notice or transparency.
This map highlights the decrease in number of polling places per county.
In the 2012 election, long lines were estimated to have stopped around 730,000 Americans from voting. Long lines prevent people from casting a ballot, and most long lines are found in communities of color. A study by the Brennan Center found that Black voters waited 45% longer and Latinx voters waited 46% longer to vote on average than white voters in the 2018 midterms. Thus, while long lines turn away voters of all races, they disproportionately block Black and Latinx voters from casting a ballot—in addition to contributing to a disorganized and overcrowded polling station.
While the Presidential Commission on Election Administration has declared 30 minutes as the highest acceptable threshold for Election Day wait times, 7% of Black Voters and 6.6% of Latinx voters reported waiting longer during the 2018 midterm elections. Only 4.1% of white voters reported waiting this long.
According to the Brennan Center, counties that become less white over the past 10 years had, on average, fewer electoral resources in 2018 than counties that became more white. A lack of electoral resources is a key cause of long lines.
It’s hard to quantify the extent of voter intimidation largely because it is hard to categorize and recognize. Many voters throughout the country, however, have reported being subjects of voter intimidation, and some notable examples have been widely reported in the media. Cases of voter suppression have allegedly increased in recent years and, according to the NAACP, Black voters are particularly vulnerable to these practices. Voter Intimidation can take many forms; some common types of intimidation include asking voters for unnecessary photo ID or proof of citizenship, intentionally disseminating false information about election procedures to confuse voters, or bothering voters as they wait in line. Latinx voters also face high levels of voter intimidation. In the 2016 election, 1 in 10 Latinx voters reported themselves or a household member being bothered at the polls.
This article from the New York Times is a guide to voter intimidation and gives advice on reporting sightings.
Language limitations can pose a serious barrier to voting for some communities. While the Voting Rights Act requires some jurisdictions to provide language assistance to voters, 1 in 6 Latinx voters still reported a “lack of Spanish-language assistance or materials” as being a voting barrier. Many voting information websites lack a Spanish option and Latinx voters are significantly less likely than white voters to be contacted about the election prior to voting.
This memo from MIT gives an overview of the history of legislation in this area and the status of language barriers today.
These organizations/resources are working to address the problems of poll closures, long lines, voter harassment, and language barriers.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has conducted extensive research on polling poll closures since 2013 and has all of the data laid out in an informative report. Additionally, their website provides an easy way to sign on to their letter and send a message to your representatives.
Fair Fight is an organization founded by former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacy Abrams to make sure elections are held safely and securely in 2020 and beyond. You can donate and volunteer for the organization.
There are many great resources available that discuss the connection between racial justice and voting laws. Below are a few helpful articles and resources that offer further information about these issues and related topics.
This article from Business Insider is about voter suppression tactics and how they have affected communities of color in recent years.
This article from Business Insider discusses the connection between elections, elected officials, and criminal justice reform. Most law enforcement offices are local, and Sheriffs are elected.
This report by We Vote, We Count discusses the history of voting rights and the limitations that still exist in society. It includes many stories of personal encounters with voter suppression as well as suggestions for addressing these issues.
This letter from the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights, an organization made up of the League of Women Voters and the ACLU among others, is a response to the COVID-19 crisis. This is a good template, albeit a bit long, for advocating voting rights to your legislators.
This article from the New York Times highlights the relationship between racial justice and corporations giving their employees paid time off to vote.
This resource from the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition provides additional resources, including anti-racism reading and further organizations.
Many other organizations have set up great websites and resources that have immense educational value. Listed below are some organizations who do great work for racial justice, with an emphasis on organizations run by Black Americans and work also done beyond the voting rights sphere. These resources are good for learning more about and taking action on some of the topics mentioned.
Black Voters Matter is an organization dedicated to expanding voter registration in Black communities, with the mission to help these neighborhoods determine their own destinies.
Campaign Zero is an organization focused on ending police violence and proposing substantive policy reforms.
Showing Up for Racial Justice is a national group that aims to mobilize white people through education.
Equal Justice Initiative is an organization that aims to change the narrative surrounding race in America by working in communities of color and creating educational resources.
The NAACP Civic Engagement Program's Black Voices Change Lives campaign is working to mobilize Black voters in the 2020 election.
The NAACP Youth & College program is organizing to engage young Black people around the country to vote this November. They are providing classes, trainings, and other weekly and daily material.
Tuft University's YESI Index lists the top races in which young people will have the most influence, and specifically points out races in which young voters of color will have outsized impact.