The Role of Voter Suppression in the 2016 Election

By Archita Taylor November 17, 2016
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Photo: Project Vote

A little over a week after the 2016 presidential election, and without the benefit of complete voter turnout numbers and in-depth data, it is still difficult to discern the exact impact of voter suppression efforts in the election. This is what we know for sure: even if they did not affect the outcome of the presidential race in the anticipated ways, voter suppression efforts in a number of states throughout the country impacted countless down-ballot races and prevented many thousands of Americans from registering to vote and casting ballots that count.

The right to vote in our country has been a struggle from the onset, and it is one that remains at the forefront of improving our democracy.

On Tuesday, November 15, the American Constitution Society and the Voting Rights Institute hosted an event at the National Press Club, “Voter Suppression in 2016: What’s Next.” The event provided an opportunity for the expert panelists to reflect on how they view the impact of various voter suppression efforts leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The right to vote in our country has been a struggle from the onset, and it is one that remains at the forefront of improving our democracy.

Panelist Rep. Kathleen Clyde of the Ohio State House discussed the numerous vote restriction efforts proposed in Ohio dating back to 2004. In the 2004 election, lines in polling places in Ohio were as long as four to six hours to vote, and more in some places. Rep. Clyde noted that nearly 20 voter suppression bills were proposed in the Ohio State Legislature in the two years leading up to the 2016 election. These bills ranged from efforts to restrict student voting, limitations in counting provisional ballots, and a requirement for perfect voter information on absentee and provisional ballots in order for those ballots to be counted. There have also been a number of administrative barriers put in place by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has purged more voters off the state’s voter rolls than any other state in the country. This is all in addition to the numerous cases filed in Ohio in the last several years, challenging various voting measures in the state. Needless to say, Ohio voters have faced a number of changes to their voting system over the last several years, compounding the anticipated confusion that may be expected with voter registration and voting.

Anita Earls, the Executive Director and founder of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, spoke to the many changes in voting rules in North Carolina, specifically since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. She discussed the impact of North Carolina’s omnibus voter suppression bill, which has been litigated the last several years, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down all provisions of the bill. Provisions from that bill included cutbacks on early voting, a strict voter ID requirement, and the repeal of pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds. In its decision striking down North Carolina’s massive voter suppression law, the Fourth Circuit said that even if done for partisan ends, the legislation constituted racial discrimination. In addition to this litigation, the state has also been in ongoing litigation on two cases under the NVRA, one to which Project Vote is co-counsel. Moreover, during early voting and on Election Day, there were numerous reported instances of voter intimidation from within the state, as well as additional issues with the administration of the election, including glitches with the electronic poll books. North Carolina voters have dealt with a slew of issues regarding their voting systems in the last few years; these problems no doubt caused confusion at the polls during early voting and on Election Day this year.

Perhaps one of the most crucial takeaways came from Julie Fernandes, the advocacy director for voting rights and democracy at the Open Society Foundations. Ms. Fernandes noted that in era an which we no longer have the protections under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, affected disenfranchised voters have little recourse after the fact. Unlike in other areas of civil rights, the remedies available in the voting rights context are virtually nonexistent retrospectively. In voting discrimination cases, there is no way to undo the harm of a deprived vote.

While the full impact of voter suppression measures in the United States is unclear, we do have a glimpse into all the many barriers that affected voters and would-be voters this year. These suppressive measures certainly affected state and local races around the country, and we will continue to see a full picture of how exactly as we learn more about what happened in this year’s presidential election.