US election

Turnout Series: How to suppress the vote

By October 28, 2016 No Comments

By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst

We previously focused on what campaigns do to get out the vote, and how demographic factors are key to understanding how voter turnout affects the outcomes of elections. This final part of our turnout series now takes a look at what campaigns and political parties in the United States do to suppress votes, and why.

It’s important to first distinguish between two different types of suppressing votes. The first is by legal means and the second is done by campaigns. Legal efforts involve placing legal barriers in the path of citizens who want to vote, while those done by campaigns generally involve efforts to drive down enthusiasm among voters. The latter might more accurately be described as depressing the vote.

Both are controversial if done deliberately, and carry the potential for significant backlash from the public because the very idea of somehow suppressing the vote strikes most as counter to democratic values. But the reality is that it is a part of American politics with a complex history that shouldn’t be brushed over as a thing of the past.

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What Campaigns Do to Suppress Votes

To the surprise of many, this week the Trump campaign revealed to Bloomberg Politics that it was actively working to suppress votes. A Trump campaign official stated that they “have three major voter suppression operations under way”. Their efforts are aimed at three key demographics: white voters who supported Bernie Sanders, millennial women, and African Americans. The logic behind it is simple. The Trump campaigns believes that Clinton is vulnerable with these groups and that by reminding them of what they don’t like about her, they hope many will choose to stay home rather than vote.

This approach is at the core of voter suppression (or depression) efforts done by campaigns. The aim is to identify groups that normally would vote for the opponent, and to try to discourage them from voting. This is done in a whole range of different ways that drive down enthusiasm, such as by framing the opponent as unacceptable, by reminding the targeted groups of why they don’t like the opponent, or even by portraying the whole election as pointless in a way that resonates with particular groups.

Like the Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign has also tried to do this to an extent. Clinton’s campaign has consistently portrayed Trump as temperamentally unfit to be President of the United States, and attacked him for sexist statements and behavior. Like the Trump campaign’s efforts, the hope has been to turn core Republican voters – especially white suburban women – away from Trump to the point where they simply choose to stay home, or skip the presidential choice at the ballot box.

These efforts by campaigns to get fewer supporters of the opponent to turn out are legal, and rarely particularly controversial. But the Trump campaign’s own description of their efforts as voter suppression, along with the fact that they singled out African American voters as a targeted group, raised the specter of America’s more sinister practice of discriminatory voter suppression using legal tools.

From Jim Crow to Voter ID Laws

Legal efforts to suppress votes are very controversial because they have often been targeted at minority voters and so they have frequently been challenged in the courts and with anti-discrimination laws.

The United States has a long history of discriminatory laws that prevented African American voters from participating in elections, most notably under so-called Jim Crow laws that were implemented in the wake of the abolition of slavery. These laws, mostly used in Southern states, created a series of barriers, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, that were used to keep African Americans from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Since the 1990s many states under mostly Republican leadership have passed laws requiring voters to present photo IDs when voting, along with other requirements to register to vote. The argument in favor of these provisions is that they prevent in-person voter fraud. The Democratic Party has vigorously resisted these laws, arguing that voter fraud is extremely rare, and that they disproportionately suppress voters who are most likely to vote for Democratic candidates such as minority, poor, and elderly voters.

Although the United States has strict laws against intimidating voters at polling places, intimidation has occurred occasionally under the guise of ensuring there are no violations of the legal requirements to vote. Sending observers to polling places is normal practice, but sometimes this crosses the line to voter intimidation as a way of suppressing the vote of certain demographic groups.

Since 1982, the Republican National Committee is bound by a legal settlement not to engage in so-called “ballot security measures”, because they had sent armed off-duty police officers to polling stations in New Jersey that served significant African American populations. But individual campaigns can still send poll watchers, and this year the Trump campaign has raised eyebrows by hinting at voter fraud in heavily African American and Latino areas, and suggesting that his campaign will send poll watchers there.