In the ratification of the Constitution, the control of elections was left to the states to decide. It led to unfair voting practices across the country; states only allowed white men who owned property to vote. With the 15th and 19th Amendments, Black men and American women have the right to suffrage. The 24th amendment eliminated poll taxes, a form of voter suppression. And in 1971, the 26th amendment was passed, lowering the voting age of all elections to 18. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Native Americans were granted full U.S. citizenship giving them the right to vote with the Snyder Act of 1924.
Our country has had a long history of voting amendments and acts to make this privilege more accessible to all. Yet, as a democratic nation, we continue to see voter suppression and a lack of access to voting in almost every community. According to the United States Elections Project, only 60% of the voter-eligible population, or VEP, voted in the 2016 election; out of the 232 million registered voters, 132 million voted.
These numbers sound impressive, but it’s only due to the increase in population in the United States. According to Business Insider, voter turnout has stagnated in the last century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, midterm elections have seen even lower voter turnouts, with only 122 million people voting, only slightly above 50% of VEP.
One can attribute different reasons to low voter turnout, but in general, it comes down to two factors: voter suppression through institutional barriers and low motivation.
Many Americans feel as though their voices do not matter, that their vote doesn’t count. The surge in nonvoters could be attributed to the 2016 election being lost to Trump despite Clinton winning the popular vote. A few thousand votes were the deciding factor for most states.
Voter apathy can also be attributed to people not believing in the system itself, being too busy to vote or not knowing enough information on each candidate to make the decision. Voter education across the country should be a significant concern. Some don’t know that you have to be registered, what to do when you get to the polling location, find the site or just general information needed to vote.
Institutional barriers are another cause of low voter turnout. Because the electoral process varies state to state, there are few federal regulations to what constitutes as voter suppression. In general, however, voter suppression can be considered any form of barriers or unnecessary burdens to voters.
According to the ACLU, “Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans … to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. These measures include cuts to early voting, voter ID laws, and purges of voter rolls.”
Overall, 36 states have laws requesting voters to show ID to vote. Voter ID generally can be a driver’s license, student ID, U.S. passport or another form of identification based off of your state. Supporters of voter ID claim that it is to fight against voter fraud. Yet, multiple studies done on this subject have found that voter fraud is nearly non-existent.
The Brennan Center’s seminal report noted that an American is more likely to “be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” Another study published in The Washington Post found that out of more than 1 billion ballots cast, only 31 credible accounts of fraud were found.
Voter ID requirements aren’t made into law to fight against voter fraud because the fraud doesn’t exist. Voter ID laws are passed to burden the voter. Nearly 11% of Americans lack the required ID and would be required to go under the long, arduous journey of obtaining one according to the ACLU.
Other contested forms of voter suppression include voter purging, in which millions of voters are taken off of voter rolls to keep records up to date. States choose to take voters off of their rolls when they believe that they have died, moved or are ineligible to vote. However, many people who are purged off these lists are done so in error, and have little idea that it has happened.
Voter suppression also comes to light through the act of gerrymandering, the redrawing of districts to create predetermined elections, normally done by differing political parties. Currently, it is challenging to determine gerrymandering, which was reinforced by the Supreme Court ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. In the 5-4 dual decision, the Court ruled that federal courts do not have the power to determine partisan gerrymandering.
Currently, in 2020, the primary concern is mail-in votes during the pandemic. According to Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans believe that the option to vote early and through absentee ballots should be available without a reason. The increased access to voting would allow a more open general election among concerns over COVID-19. Most divides in views stem from partisan beliefs. The majority of Republicans (59%) believe that changes to election rules would make the election less secure, while 21% of Democrats believe the same.
While voter turnout and voter suppression seem to create a bleak future for first-time voters, there is plenty that can be done. Grassroots organizations are at the forefront of advocating for voters’ rights. Organizations like ValloVotes help people to become educated on their vote, hold registration drives, and in general, help students and communities to become more active in politics.
John Latner, a sophomore at the University of Montevallo and Campus Organizer for ValloVotes, believes that “this election is the most important election we’ve ever faced.”
According to Latner, reforms in the voting process, like making Election Day a federal holiday, a nationwide voter registration program, the repeal of voter ID laws and a non-partisan commission to draw voting districts, would create the necessary progress towards voting rights in our country.
“Voting is the most important thing that we as citizens can do,” states Latner.
Latner says that if a student at Montevallo wishes to get involved, “they can message our Instagram account, @ValloVotes, or they can reach out to me personally.” His contact information is @john_latner on Instagram, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
With Latner’s words, “If you do one thing this semester, vote.”