Voter Suppression 2020
Students Fight for Their Right to Vote
by Professor Steve Posner • September 14 - 27, 2020
There are approximately 20 million eligible voters attending college in the U.S. Less than half of them voted in the last presidential election, the lowest of all other age groups. Nearly forty percent of the students who do not vote believe it would not make a difference if they did.
Four years ago, about 80% of seniors 65 years old and over voted, 67% of those between 45 and 64 did the same, as did 59% of those 30 to 44 years old. Only 48% of the nation’s college students turned out to vote.
Had college participation in 2016 been higher, the increase may have had a major impact on the Electoral College, despite it being a relatively small portion of the total national vote.
American presidents are not chosen directly by the people. Presidential candidates receiving the most votes in a given state are awarded electors who represent them in the Electoral College. Whoever wins the majority of Electoral College votes becomes President of the United States.
The Electoral College system grants every state a minimum of two electors. This mirrors the two-representatives-per-state formula in the Senate. The rest of the electors are distributed proportionately based on population, as is done in the House of Representatives. This guaranteed minimum makes it harder for a few states with large populations to dominate a broad coalition of smaller ones.
For instance, at the time of the 2016 presidential election, California had a population of 39 million, more than six times that of Wyoming’s 580,000. California had 55 electoral votes, one per 709,000. Wyoming had three electors, one per 193,000. If Wyoming had to follow the same standard as California, it would not have had any.
Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by almost three million votes, but it was still not enough to win her the presidency in the Electoral College. She received overwhelming support in the large high-density urban centers, giving her voting majorities in 20 states. Donald Trump triumphed in smaller cities and sparsely populated rural areas, yielding victories in 30 states.
Falling short of the required 270 electoral votes despite her popular vote majority, Clinton wound up with only 227 electors, and Trump won the presidency with 304 votes in the Electoral College.
The Electoral College math that advantages lesser populated states also opens an opportunity for college students to significantly influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. A look back at the contest four years ago illustrates the possibilities for this November.
College Students in Battleground States
Had Senator Clinton won the majority in just three swing states— Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—the additional 46 electors would have made her President of the United States.
There are a handful of states that sometimes tilt Republican, other times Democrat. Their voters are often evenly split, with Independents switching between parties, making these swing voters a crucial ingredient for winning elections.
James Carville managed Bill Clinton’s successful campaign against President George H.W. Bush’s reelection, crafting a campaign strategy that wooed Independent voters with a message emphasizing his boss’s credentials as a candidate less conservative than his Republican opponent but more moderate than his liberal Democratic colleagues.
In 1992, the most treasured voter was a voter that would sort of swing back and forth, one that might vote for Republican for president, Democrat for governor. The voter that didn't have that strong of a partisan ID. These were the voters that we targeted.
Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan retain the same swing state status that they had four years ago. Their significance in the Electoral College makes them battleground targets for conversion by both parties. The small margins needed to win each of their electoral votes makes the effort more tempting but also more difficult since by definition, swing voters are not easily convinced by one side or the other.
In both of the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, the majority of swing state voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan went for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. Eight years later, they flipped Republican, abandoning Obama’s former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to vote for Donald Trump.
The 2016 election provides a scenario for speculating how college students could help determine the outcome of a presidential election. The analysis does not imply a preference for one candidate over another, a favoring of Clinton over Trump, or the prediction of a Biden win in November. Examining a hypothetical reversal of the 2016 Electoral College tally simply illustrates the potential power of the college vote.
Trump won Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan by a combined total of 79,000 votes, just 6% of the 1.4 million who voted in those three states and a mere .06% of the 138 million who did so nationwide.
The nearly 79,000 votes that determined the 2016 election totaled less than 7% of the college student population in those three states:
✓ Wisconsin. There were approximately 290,00 college students eligible to vote, and President Trump’s margin of victory in that state was 22,200, equal to just 7.5% of the state’s college student electorate.
✓ Pennsylvania. Trump’s margin in Pennsylvania was 46,400, equaling 7% of its 650,000 college student population.
✓ Michigan. Trump had a 10,700 edge in Michigan, accounting for a just 2% of the 510,000 college students who were eligible to vote.
There are twice as many Democrats on campus as there are Republicans: 52% Democrats, 25% Republicans, and 23% Independents. Four years ago, if college students had matched the 80% turnout by grandparents and their fellow seniors, or the 85% turnout of 18-24 year olds in Sweden, the jump could have changed the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
The increased college turnout would have yielded an extra 47,800 votes for Clinton in Wisconsin, 107,000 in Pennsylvania, and 84,000 in Michigan, more than enough for her to win each of those states, their 46 electoral votes, and the presidency.
A disproportionate increase in turnout by energized college Republicans might still have given Trump his victory. Yet the numbers attest to the potential impact of a rising college vote. They do not prove that a rise would inevitably benefit one party more than another, guaranteeing either a Republican or a Democratic victory. They do demonstrate how decisive an expanded student electorate could have been in the Electoral College four years ago, convincing campaign strategists in both parties that it could actually happen this time, in 2020.
The Nation Votes, the Electoral College Decides
The Electoral College was devised to not only preserve the political influence of smaller states but to also blunt the impact of public opinion on presidential elections. America’s founders wanted to insulate the selection from the whims of the uninformed and the unethical.
Alarmed by the susceptibility of the average voter to manipulation, demagoguery, and greed, the Constitutional Convention jettisoned direct elections for a representative system. States are allocated a set number of representatives that they select, who later cast votes as electors in the Electoral College. The majority of electors in the Electoral College choose the President.
Writing in the Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton presented the rationale for an indirect system of presidential voting.
The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
Originally, the electors were not bound to one candidate or another and were free to exercise their own judgement when selecting a president. That soon changed and electors pledge their support for a candidate prior to the election.
Aside from the attempt to shield decision-making from the average voter, the Electoral College assured the Southern States that they would not be dominated by the more populous North.
The populations in the Northern and Southern states were approximately equal. But over 640,000 people in the South were slaves, almost 33% of its population compared to 6% in the North, which had enslaved 40,000 people.
Slaves were not citizens. With a third of its people ineligible to vote, the Southern states worried that their agricultural interests would be shunted aside by the more numerous eligible voters in the industrial North. An indirect system of voting would alleviate the concerns of major slaveholding states in the South.
James Madison, architect of the Constitution, acknowledged Southern fears of being consistently outvoted if presidents were elected by a majority of voters nationwide. He proposed the Electoral College system whereby a majority of each state’s electors would choose a president, not the majority of the country’s voters. The system increased the clout of the less populated slave states.
Madison’s indirect democracy protected the political privileges of the minority of slaveholders in the South who decried the “tyranny of the majority” abolitionists in the North. He tabled the idea as a compromise that was more practical than admirable.
The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.
To ease Southern worries, the founders also allowed three-fifths of the slave population to be included when calculating membership in the House of Representatives, even though none of them could cast a ballot or hold elective office. This boost in congressional representation in the Southern states also increased their allotment of votes in the Electoral College.
When George Washington won election to become the nation’s first president, Georgia had just 2% of the country’s population. It also had 5 electoral votes. Massachusetts had 0 slaves and accounted for nearly 10% of the nation’s citizens. Yet it only had 10 electors, just twice as many as Georgia even though it had almost four and a half times as many people. Slaveholding states like Georgia were given more Electoral College clout so they could resist attempts by free states like Massachusetts to abolish slavery nationwide.
The Electoral College compromise enabled the American Revolution’s original Thirteen Colonies to unite into one country.
Voting Rights and Denials
When Washington ran for President in 1788, only adult White male landowners over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. They numbered nearly 650,000, approximately a third of the new nation’s adult population. The nonvoting population consisted of White women, Blacks, and other people of color. Native Americans were not yet under the jurisdiction of the United States.
The rationale for privileging landowning white men was articulated by John Adams, a leading thinker and diplomat during the American Revolution who later became the second President of the United States.
It is certain in Theory, that the only moral Foundation of Government is the Consent of the People. But to what an Extent Shall We carry this Principle? Shall We Say, that every Individual of the Community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly to every Act of Legislation? No, you will Say. This is impossible.
How then does the Right arise in the Majority to govern the Minority, against their Will? Whence arises the Right of the Men to govern Women, without their Consent? Whence the Right of the old to bind the Young, without theirs.
But let us first Suppose, that the whole Community of every Age, Rank, Sex, and Condition, has a Right to vote. This Community, is assembled — a Motion is made and carried by a Majority of one Voice. The Minority will not agree to this. Whence arises the Right of the Majority to govern, and the Obligation of the Minority to obey? from Necessity, you will Say, because there can be no other Rule.
But why exclude Women? You will Say, because their Delicacy renders them unfit for Practice and Experience, in the great Business of Life, and the hardy Enterprizes [sic] of War, as well as the arduous Cares of State. Besides, their attention is So much engaged with the necessary Nurture of their Children, that Nature has made them fittest for domestic Cares. And Children have not Judgment or Will of their own. True. But will not these Reasons apply to others?
Is it not equally true, that Men in general in every Society, who are wholly destitute of Property, are also too little acquainted with public Affairs to form a Right Judgment, and too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own? If this is a Fact, if you give to every Man, who has no Property, a Vote, will you not make a fine encouraging Provision for Corruption by your fundamental Law? Such is the Frailty of the human Heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by Some Man of Property, who has attached their Minds to his Interest.
During a debate at the Constitutional Convention on August 7, 1787, Gouverneur Morris also made a case for restricting the vote. Morris would later write the Preamble to the Constitution.
Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them. We should not confine our attention to the present moment. The time is not distant when this Country will abound with mechanics & manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be the secure & faithful Guardians of liberty? Will they be the impregnable barrier agst. [sic] aristocracy? He was as little duped by the association of the words “taxation & Representation.”
The man who does not give his vote freely is not represented. It is the man who dictates the vote. Children do not vote. Why? because they want prudence, because they have no will of their own. The ignorant & the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest.
It was not until 1856 that the last state removed the property requirement for voting. The 15th Amendment gave Blacks and other male persons of color the right to vote in the aftermath of the Civil War that ended slavery. It took another 60 years before women would be given the vote through the 19th Amendment that was ratified in 1920.
When the minimum age for the military draft was reduced from 21 to 18 during World War II, a movement to lower the voting age emerged and continued for decades. “You're old enough to kill but not for votin'” became a popular slogan during the Vietnam War, taken from a hit song written in 1964 by P.F. Sloan, who was 19-years-old at the time. In 1971, with the fighting still raging, the 26th Amendment was passed, lowering the age of eligibility from 21 to 18, empowering college students who felt a moral responsibility to vote by giving them the right to vote.
Granting people the right to vote is not the same as giving them an opportunity to vote. “Every election is determined by the people who show up,” notes Professor Larry Sabato, Founding Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Some elections are not only decided by those who show up but also by preventing the opposing candidate’s voters from showing up.
Suppressing the Student Vote
Over the past decade, certain election officials have made it harder for college students to vote, claiming that making it easier to cast ballots makes it easier to cheat. Voting rights advocates say the tighter restrictions were designed to favor one political party over another.
In 2011, New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien backed legislation that would eliminate same day voter registration. The ability to conveniently vote on Election Day without having to register in advance had been in place for the previous fifteen years, with no problems.
O’Brien warned constituents that Election Day registration had allowed “kids coming out of the schools” to do “what I did when I was a kid, and foolish — which is voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do,” he cautioned. “They don’t have life experience, and they just vote their feelings.”
Another bill would have prohibited out-of-state students living in dormitories from casting ballots in New Hampshire.
The domicile for voting purposes of a person attending an institution of learning shall not be the place where the institution is located unless the person was domiciled in that place prior to matriculation.
The bill’s co-sponsor, State Representative Gregory Sorg, posted a defense of his legislation on the website of The Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers.
Many years ago, when I left home to enter the University of Maryland, it was with the intention of living there only from September through May of each year. It was my expectation – which events justified – that from June through August between terms I would work a summer job, ideally one that would enable me to live at home in order to avoid depleting my earnings by paying rent. It was further my expectation – which events also justified – that upon graduation, I would depart for whichever new location the job market or post-graduate study took me.
These intentions and expectations on my part were basically the same as those of 99 college students out of 100, or perhaps 999 out of 1,000. It never entered my mind to abandon my existing domicile and register to vote in College Park, Maryland, because it was so transparently obvious how unfair it would be were the votes of 15 to 20,000 college students able to drown out those of the permanent inhabitants of that town that I never imagined the law would ever countenance such a travesty of self-government. The same considerations also kept me from registering to vote on [sic] Lexington, Virginia, when I attended Washington & Lee University Law School.
A college or university is by design an insular community of scholars and instructors sheltered from the distractions of the larger world, replicating in its essentials the life that most students had to then always lived as dependents of their parents. It is a sort of educational theme park surrounded by the larger community of people dealing with the real-world concerns of getting and holding jobs, raising their children, caring for their homes, and paying taxes.
They, unlike the transient inmates of the college, have a long-term stake in the future of the community, county and State, which they ensure – or try to ensure – through their votes. Their legitimate interests cannot be effectively represented and promoted when their votes are diluted – or entirely canceled – by those of a huge, largely monolithic demographic group artificially imposed upon them, comprised of people with a dearth of experience and a plethora of the easy self-confidence that only ignorance and inexperience can produce, people whose youthful idealism is focused on remaking the world (with themselves in charge, of course!) rather than with the mundane hum-drum of local government. Such a situation is fundamentally unfair.
Both of the New Hampshire voter regulation bills were sponsored by Republicans. According to Peter Wallsten of the Washington Post, Democrats believed their purpose was “simply to deflate the power of core Democratic voting blocs — in this case young people and minorities.”
Not all New Hampshire Republicans were in favor of the proposed restrictions. “There’s no doubt that this bill would help Republican causes,” said Richard Sunderland, president of the Dartmouth College Republicans. “But the way I see the lines here,” he told Generation Progress, “is we are students and first and foremost, as students, this is attacking our right to vote.”
According to Sunderland, college Republicans do have a stake in the surrounding community. “I would say that the majority of our group votes in New Hampshire,” he told The College Fix. “We were getting involved in the local campaigns. Here we have a daily, weekly involvement in politics. We don’t have many opportunities outside that.”
Sayak Mukherjee, president of Dartmouth’s College Democrats, concurred: “The fact that the College Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians are united just goes to show that there is a lot of solidarity about this issue across campus.”
The New Hampshire legislature’s Law Committee, consisting of 13 Republicans and 4 Democrats, voted 8-0 not to endorse the elimination of same day voting and 13 - 5 against the passage of the bill revoking the voting rights of college students living in dorms. Both measures were later rejected by the full New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Voter suppression in the United States is not new. It has been a tactic of white supremacists for the past 150 years. The government officials among them collaborated in concocting regulations that made voting by Blacks rare. The racist citizenry made it dangerous and at times, deadly. Though less violent, barriers that suppress the vote in minority communities persist.
Voting in Black and White
Historically, questioning the competence of certain voting groups has been used to justify voter suppression. The characterizations of college students as “foolish” kids with an “easy self-confidence that only ignorance and inexperience can produce” were designed to enlist support for legislation that curtailed their right to vote. Similar justifications have been employed against African Americans.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, opposed the granting of citizenship rights to emancipated slaves based on similar accusations of incompetence. “Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior,” Jefferson wrote. “His imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky.”
Denigrating African Americans was not a just a preoccupation in the Southern states. When delegates to the 1821 New York Constitutional Convention were debating a proposal to strip Blacks of their voting rights, the argument in favor relied on the view that they were intellectually unworthy of the privilege, as explained by one of the attendees, Samuel Young.
The minds of the blacks are not competent to vote. They are too much degraded to estimate the value, or exercise with fidelity and discretion that important right. It would be unsafe in their hands. Their vote would be at the call of the richest purchaser. If this class of people should hereafter arrive at such a degree of intelligence and virtue, as to inspire confidence, then it will be proper to confer this privilege upon them. At present emancipate and protect them; but withhold that privilege which they will inevitably abuse.
Delegate John Ross likewise faulted Black temperament as a voting disqualification.
They are a peculiar people, incapable, in my judgment, of exercising that privilege with any sort of discretion, prudence, or independence. They have no just conceptions of civil liberty. They know not how to appreciate it, and are consequently indifferent to its preservation.
Proponents of expanding suffrage to include African Americans invoked the foundational principle of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Delegate Peter R. Livingston sought to reconcile the contradiction between slavery and equality, warning the Convention that letting Blacks vote might destroy White America.
When these states separated from the mother country, and formed constitutions of government, they declared that all men were free and equal; and yet in the next breath they gave a practical refutation of the doctrine they had advanced, by depriving their citizens of equal rights, in granting privileges to the rich which were denied to the poor.
And why did they exclude the latter from the right of suffrage? Public policy required it. The wealth of this state was comparatively in the hands of a few individuals. Four or five families could almost control the wealth of the state, and it was necessary to conciliate the rich to avail themselves of their inﬂuence and wealth.
What was then the situation of the people of colour? They were slaves. A free negro was a phenomenon in the state. They were recognized only as property. Since that time various acts have been passed ameliorating their condition — providing for their gradual emancipation — and prohibiting their exportation to foreign states as slaves. But after having thus provided for their emancipation, and welfare, it behoves [sic] us to have regard to the safety of ourselves.
Grant them emancipation. Grant them the protection of your laws, and the enjoyment of their religion. But if they are dangerous to your political institutions, put not a weapon into their hands to destroy you.
Delegate Olney Briggs from Schoharie County agreed that Blacks could not be trusted.
The black man was a degraded member of society, and would, therefore, be always ready to sell his vote; nor would real estate make him a better man. The whites can never take them to their bosoms.
John Jay, the former Governor of New York and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who had served as President of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, offered a stark rebuttal to Briggs, blaming the tragic plight of Black Americans on White Americans.
He could wish that gentleman had assigned some reasons why persons of colour might not be as intelligent and virtuous as white persons. Had nature interposed any barriers to prevent them from the acquisition of knowledge, or the pursuit of virtue? It was true they were now in some measure a degraded race; but how came they so? Was it not by our fault, and the fault of our fathers? And because they had been degraded, the gentleman from Schoharie was for visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and for condemning them to eternal degradation. He could not but think there were too many unfounded prejudices ; too much pride of democracy on this subject.
However we may scorn, and insult, and trample upon this unfortunate race now, the day was fast approaching when we must lie down with them in that narrow bed appointed for all the living. Then, if not before, the pride of distinction would cease.
Briggs did not retreat from his disparagement.
That gentleman had remarked that we must all ultimately lie down in the same bed together. But he would ask that honourable gentleman whether he would consent to lie down, in life, in the same feather bed with a negro? But it was said that the right of suffrage would elevate them. He would ask whether it would elevate a monkey or a baboon to allow them to vote?
Efforts to deny Blacks the right vote in New York failed. But the Convention also failed to extend to African Americans the same rights bestowed upon White Americans. It removed the property requirement for White men and stipulated that they had to have lived in the state and have paid taxes for at least a year prior to an election. Blacks had to have resided in New York and paid taxes for three years. Unlike Whites, they also had to own property worth at least $250 (equivalent to about $6,000 in today’s dollars) in order to vote.
This was a classic case of African American voter suppression, imposing an unequal and unreasonable demand on a people who had barely emerged from slavery with virtually no money or possessions. In 1825, out of 13,000 African American residents in New York City, only 68 were eligible to vote.
U.S. Congressman and New York Convention delegate Jonas Platt denounced the requirements that may have appeared to expand the African Americans vote but was in practice an opaque way of decreasing it.
We shall violate a sacred principle, without any necessity, if we retain this discrimination. We say to this unfortunate race of men, purchase a freehold estate of $250 value, and you shall then be equal to the white man, who parades one day in the militia, or performs a day’s work on the highway. Sir, it is adding mockery to injustice. We know that, with rare exceptions, they have not the means of purchasing a freehold: and it would be unworthy of this grave Convention to do, indirectly, an act of injustice, which we are unwilling openly to avow.
The real object is, to exclude the oppressed and degraded sons of Africa; and, in my humble judgment, it would better comport with the dignity of this Convention to speak out, and to pronounce the sentence of perpetual degradation, on negroes and their posterity forever, than to establish a test, which we know they cannot comply with, and which we do not require of others.
The passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 made it illegal to prohibit African Americans from voting in every state. As in New York, election officials began inventing bureaucratic barriers to tamp down the Black vote, supplemented by violence.
The Mississippi Plan was hatched in 1875 to reverse the political gains that Blacks had achieved during the Reconstruction years following the end of the Civil War. Its methods were soon adopted by other former members of the Confederacy.
The Mississippi Plan to suppress the Black vote worked. “It is no secret that there has not been a full vote and a fair count in Mississippi since 1875,” boasted Joseph Chrisman. “We have been preserving the ascendency of the white people by revolutionary methods,” the Mississippi judge noted. “We have been stuffing the ballot-boxes, committing perjury, and here and there in the state carrying the elections by fraud and violence.”
The 1890 Constitution established a legal framework for voter suppression, instituting poll taxes, making voting too expensive for an impoverished community that had already been brutalized for more than three centuries.
Literacy tests were introduced, ostensibly to prove that citizens had sufficient knowledge to vote responsibly, yet in practice they were designed to disqualify African Americans. Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution imposed a new requirement for voting: the ability “to read any section of the constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.” What might sound reasonable was in actuality a scheme to suppress the Black vote.
Bruce Hartford, a civil rights activist working to register voters in the Deep South during the 1960s, described a typical Mississippi literacy test.
A white applicant might be asked to copy out and interpret a simple sentence:
Article 12 Section 240. All elections by the people shall be by ballot.
A Black applicant would be asked to copy and interpret a complicated lawyerly passage:
Article 7 Section 182. The power to tax corporations and their property shall never be surrendered or abridged by any contract or grant to which the state or any political subdivision thereof may be a party, except that the Legislature may grant exemption from taxation in the encouragement of manufactures and other new enterprises of public utility extending for a period of not exceeding ten (10) years on each such enterprise hereafter constructed, and may grant exemptions not exceeding ten (10) years on each addition thereto or expansion thereof, and may grant exemptions not exceeding ten (10) years on future additions to or expansions of existing manufactures and other enterprises of public utility. The time of each exemption shall commence from the date of completion of the new enterprise, and from the date of completion of each addition or expansion, for which an exemption is granted. When the Legislature grants such exemptions for a period of ten (10) years or less, it shall be done by general laws, which shall distinctly enumerate the classes of manufactures and other new enterprises of public utility, entitled to such exemptions, and shall prescribe the mode and manner in which the right to such exemptions shall be determined.
Deciding if the applicant’s answers were adequate “was entirely up to the Registrar's sole judgement,” Hartford reported. The results were not unpredictable. “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” Senator Theodore Bilbo proudly confessed, “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics.”
A member of the Ku Klux Klan anti-Black terrorist organization, Senator Biblo praised the effectiveness of literacy tests when campaigning for reelection in 1946. “The poll tax won’t keep ’em from voting. What keeps ’em from voting is section 244 of the constitution of 1890,” Biblo explained. “It says that for a man to register, he must be able to read and explain the constitution,” and then the authors “wrote a constitution that damn few white men and no niggers at all can explain.”
In his book, Simple Justice, Richard Kluger wrote that literacy tests were “a new refinement in the maturing art of disenfranchisement, and since it left a great deal of discretion to white officials, 123,000 black voters in Mississippi were defunct practically overnight.”
Klan members used violence instead of trickery to keep African Americans from voting. Black political organizers were lynched, intimated, tortured. There were politically motivated atrocities, like the 1873 Colfax Massacre in Louisiana when fighting erupted over a disputed election in Grant Parish. The local government included several Black elected officials. A few hundred armed men dominated by former Confederate officers and Ku Klux Klan members attacked the Colfax courthouse to expel the African American officeholders and seize control of the town. Black defenders were outgunned and slaughtered, many burned alive. Defenseless prisoners were shot and hanged. Nearly a hundred Blacks were killed. There were three White fatalities.
In Monroe County, Klansmen killed a black Mississippian, Jack Dupree, in front of his wife. The Klan targeted Dupree because he led a political group that was pro-Union and anti-Confederate.
Edward Holman, a 26-year-old farmer who heard firsthand accounts of Dupree’s murder, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives on July 25, 1971.
Some sixty disguised men took him from his house, and from his wife, who had been confined not two weeks before with twins, and who had a child about a year old beside, (there were three small children) they took him from his bed, took him out into the yard, stripped him of his shirt and drawers, all the clothing he had on, and beat him there in the yard. They then took him some five miles, making him walk part of the way, and part of the way allowing him to ride one of their horses; took him into the woods some distance and beat him until he was nearly dead, as a witness stated at the Oxford court; they then cut him open from the throat to the straddle, took out all his insides, and then threw his body into McKinley’s Creek, that runs near Ross’s mill. His body never has been found.
I was sent there myself by the judge of the court. The man who went with me did not know there was a stream near there, but he took me to a place where the horses were held, and he stated that they came back and told him that he was cut open entirely, and his heart and insides all taken out.
He was a leading man in the neighborhood, and was a respectable man among them. He was a man who drank some whiskey, and I had heard before that he was rather a boisterous man; but he was a man who was trusted as president of a club, and was a leading man among them.
Anti-Black laws and lynchings succeeded in suppressing the African American vote. Black American turnout in North Carolina plummeted from 81% in 1880 to 1% in 1912. In South Carolina, the drop was 77% to 2%. Alabama declined 55% to 2%, Mississippi went from 45% to 2%, Louisiana fell from 44% down to 1%.
African American voter turnout did not recover until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The bill curtailed literacy tests, poll taxes, and any other discriminatory practice aimed at suppressing the Black vote in Southern states that had a history of voter suppression. Within a few years, African American voter registration rates in Mississippi jumped back up, from 6.7% in 1965 to 59.8% in 1967.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that voter suppression in the South is no longer a systemic problem. “Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his defense of the decision.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disagreed, noting that although there has been an overall improvement in voting rights protections across the country, there are still pockets of discrimination where African Americans continue to be targets for voter suppression.
“A governing political coalition has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power. When voting is racially polarized, efforts by the ruling party to pursue that incentive ‘will inevitably discriminate against a racial group,’” Justice Ginsburg explained. “Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination.”
Civil rights observers insist that suppression of the Black vote is still a current problem. Although the strategies no longer involve absurd tests and violent threats, voting advocates identify more indirect ways of denying African Americans the right to vote. One involves closing the number of polling places in minority communities to make it less convenient to vote.
A study by the Leadership Council for Civil Rights reports the closing of 1,688 polling locations since 2012 in states where election practices had been previously supervised under the Voting Rights Acts to prevent changes that might negatively impact African American turnout. The shutdowns have also included reductions in location staff and equipment that have forced minority voters to wait in long lines, sometimes for as long as six hours.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, counties with more minorities have less resources. Whiter communities have 25% more poll workers per voter than those with more minorities, and 45% more polling locations. More Blacks and Latinos have to wait 30 minutes or longer to cast a ballot than White voters.
In South Carolina, the ten precincts with the longest wait times served communities that had a higher percentage of Black voters than others in the state, and fewer voting machines.
In Georgia, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis showed that 214 polling stations had closed since 2012. A third of the counties now have fewer voting locations than they did in 2012 despite there being 700,000 more people who are living in the state.
Macon-Bibb County, Georgia closed six polling places in predominantly Black neighborhoods and only two in White ones. Macon-Bibb County Elections Officer Tom Gillon said the decision was about money, not race, the result of local government cutbacks. “They asked every department to cut their budgets, and poll workers were a large part of our budget,” Gillon told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “If the county showed us more money, we would have 50 precincts.”
Macon-Bibb County’s budget last year was more than $161 million. Jeanetta Watson, the county’s Election Supervisor, said that cutting polling stations from 40 to 26 yielded savings of $40,000, which is less than one percent of the county’s budget.
“If you want to restrict voter turnout in minority and disadvantaged communities, a good way is to move a polling place somewhere they can’t get to,” Stacey Abrams told a Reuters reporter. Abrams, who is African American, lost her bid for Georgia governor by just 1.4% of the vote.
A Democrat, Abrams is the founder of Fair Fight, an organization whose mission is to “educate voters about elections and their voting rights.” Emerging out of allegations of voting irregularities in Georgia, Fair Fight has expanded to other places where ballot access is problematic. “Suppression of voters of color and young voters is a scourge our country faces in states across the nation,” the organization warns.
Many Republican officials defend the poll closures. “We need to recognize that this was not some plot from Republicans to suppress the vote,” Georgia state representative Houston Gaines told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That narrative being pressed by Stacey Abrams and the Democrats is not true.”
“Nobody is trying to keep anybody from voting,” insisted Robert Haney, Chairman of the Upson County Board of Elections, who cut the number of polling places by more than half. “There were many factors that influenced our decision, but none of them had anything to do with race or making it more difficult for anyone to vote.” Haney said the consolidation would save the county $15,000 - $20,000.
Upson County’s 2018 budget was over $17 million. Locals officials allocated $176,000 for the County Board of Elections to manage polling locations, handle registration, fulfill ballot requests, and process the votes. The funding equaled 1% of the county’s expenditures.
Closing five of the nine polling locations in the county saved $15,000 - $20,000, equal to a tenth of one percent of the county’s overall budget. Last year, Upson County had a surplus of $10.8 million.
“We’re in the best financial shape we’ve been in for 39 years,” Upson County Commissioner James Ellington told colleagues at a board meeting.
Attributing the decrease in polling stations to budget constraints is misleading, critics charge, noting that states can easily cover the negligible costs of managing and staffing polling stations. “There is a history in those states of using different strategies to cut voting in minority communities,” says Leah Aden, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Republican State Senator Josh McKoon insists that the poll closures are for financial decisions, not political ones. “We need to be careful in ascribing bad motives to people,” McKoon told a reporter. “I don't believe I encountered anybody who woke up in the morning and said, ‘How can we make it more difficult to vote?’”
Skeptics are not convinced, accusing election officials of using calls for reduced spending as a ruse to disguise attempts to thwart minority voter turnout. “It’s really hard to separate whether this is just partisan trickery or if there’s a racial undercurrent,” says Emory University Professor Andra Gillespie. “The history of discrimination in the state and in this region suggests that there have been anti-democratic elements that wanted to deny what now constitutes almost one-third of the population the right to vote.”
In their research study, Waiting to Vote — Racial Disparities in Election Day Experiences, MIT Professor Charles Stewart and Harvard University Professor Stephen Ansolabeher concluded that long wait times at polling places does drive down turnout. According to their estimates, more than half a million people did not vote in the 2012 presidential election “because of a list of polling place problems that include long lines — inconvenient hours or polling place location.”
In the intervening years leading up to the election this November, political fights over the number of polling places, their location, staff size, and funding have given way to a more urgent problem: how to vote safely and reliably in the midst of a global pandemic.
Voting Early by Mail, or Staying Safe at the Polls
Until there is a vaccine or a cure, social distancing, masks, and hand washing are the only protections we have against the coronavirus. Spending time in crowded spaces outdoors is dangerous, being crammed together indoors can be deadly. Waiting in long lines on Election Day and then milling around inside the polling stations while waiting to vote increases the likelihood of catching and/or spreading the virus. It can be done safely, though only if states take the proper precautions and voters comply with them.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn't be able to vote in person or otherwise,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a world renown immunologist who has served under six presidents, including both Republicans and Democrats.
I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason that I can see why that not be the case. For example, you know, when you look at going to a grocery store now in many regions and counties and cities that are doing it correctly, they have X’s every six or more feet. And it says, ‘Don't leave this spot until the person in front of you left their spot.’ And you can do that, if you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to do that.
Dr. Fauci is quick to add that for people with underlying health problems or concerns about getting sick, voting by mail is a reasonable option. “Obviously, if you’re a person who is compromised physically or otherwise, you don’t want to take the chance. There’s the situation of mail-in voting that has been done for years in many places. These high risks groups include the elderly, Blacks, Latinos, and those with preexisting health conditions such as diabetes and obesity.”
Wary about being debilitated by Covid-19, millions of more people will be voting for president by mail. Many will be casting ballots early, even several weeks before Election Day, to make it easier for officials to process the unprecedented surge in mail votes.
According to A College Pulse / Knight Foundation poll, a majority of college students, 53%, plan to vote by mail, a figure that might rise as more colleges shut down and the coronavirus continues to spread unabated. Over 200,000 people in the U.S. have already died from the disease and the average death toll is a 1,000 more a day.
Recent restrictions have made it harder for college students to vote. Students are not unaware of the challenge, with 49% expecting that the voting process will be difficult.
Minority students are particularly concerned about the fairness of the election. Nearly 63% of Black students indicate that if they should encounter long lines at their neighborhood polling stations, the culprit may be racial discrimination and not the expected surge in voter turnout.
Democrats want to make it easier for college students to vote. Trump officials do not, dismissing the youth turnout effort as an unfair manipulation of the process that primarily benefits Democrats. According to the College Pulse / Knight Foundation survey, 70% of college students said they will vote for Biden in November, and 18% support Trump.
Republican Party officials claim that new restrictions on college voting must be imposed to reduce the possibility of voter fraud. Critics say the obstacles are a deliberate attempt to suppress the vote of those most likely to support Democrats in the presidential election.
“I’ve been tracking allegations of fraud for years now,” writes Professor Justin Levin, a constitutional scholar at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “When the Supreme Court weighed in on voter ID, I looked at every single allegation put before the Court. And since then, I’ve been following reports wherever they crop up.” In the 2000-2014 timeframe that Levin studied, he found just 31 incidents of alleged fraud, many of them still unproven. To put this in perspective, Levin notes that the 31 incidents occurred over a fourteen year period, when “more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period.”
Professor Levin’s conclusions fit the findings of academics and law enforcement agencies who report that voter fraud in the United States is rare and insignificant when determining the outcome of American elections.
Yet voting rights groups contend that students, like previous constituencies whose votes were denied or discouraged, are confronting unfounded accusations of voter fraud and discriminatory requirements. They reject allegations that the status of students as temporary residents of college towns makes it more likely that they will commit election fraud, condemning it as a false smear that is being used as a convenient excuse to make it harder for young people to vote.
Many students are new to the college towns where they now live, and most are unfamiliar with local election laws. Civil rights advocates say this lack of information makes it easy for officials to discourage students from voting by instituting new guidelines purposely formulated to confuse and deter.
“Young people are bigger than the boomers now,” says Nancy Thomas, Director of Tufts University’s Institute of Democracy and Higher Education. “They’re a formidable bloc, and they are going to get targeted for suppression.”
A federal judge cited just such an instance of voter suppression when Florida’s Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews refused to allow the University of Florida’s campus in Gainesville to serve as an early voting polling station for the school’s 52,000 students even though it had been used for regular votes on Election Day.
In 2018, the League of Women Voters joined the Andrew Goodman Foundation and six UFL students in filing a motion challenging the 2014 decision to block early voting on campus. John Tupps, a spokesperson for Florida Governor Rick Scott, denounced the legal action as a disingenuous campaign trick.
“The political organization and the partisan D.C. lawyers that filed this frivolous lawsuit know that under Gov. Scott's leadership, he has made it easier for Floridians to vote,” said Tupps. “This political group waited four years to challenge this interpretation. This is obviously an election-year gimmick to distort the facts.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled in favor of the students in a harshly worded critique of the State of Florida’s ban. “Voting is the beating heart of democracy,” Judge Walker wrote. “Throwing up roadblocks in front of younger voters does not remotely serve the public interest. Abridging voting rights never does.”
These excerpts from Judge Walker’s ruling (edited and consolidated) illustrate the challenges college students must overcome if they want to have an impact on the upcoming election.
Early voting is especially popular among college students. They vote early at a higher rate in Florida than the national average.
A group of UF students had approached the Gainesville City Commission about placing an early voting site on campus, prompting the City Attorney to seek clarification from Defendant [the State of Florida, represented by Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner].
Defendant’s answer was a resounding “no.” He declared that “[t]he Reitz Union is a structure designed for, and affiliated with, a specific educational institution. It is part of the University of Florida.”
As a direct result of Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner’s Opinion issued through the Division of Elections, none of the nearly 830,000 students enrolled in a public university or college can vote early on campus. And none of the 68 percent of Gainesville residents affiliated with UF or Santa Fe College can vote early where they work, study, or, for thousands of students, live.
This Court does not lightly compare contemporary laws and policies to more shameful eras of American history. But addressing intentional discrimination does not require kid gloves. In 1910, Oklahoma amended its constitution to create exemptions to the state’s literacy test; namely, anyone or his descendant who could vote on January 1, 1866 — the so-called grandfather clause — “or who was at that time resided in some foreign nation” need not take a literacy test.
January 1, 1866 was no coincidence—the overwhelming majority of African-Americans could not vote prior to that day because of, among other reasons, slavery and the absence of the Fifteenth Amendment’s protections. While the Court acknowledged that Oklahoma’s amendment “contains no express words” targeting African-Americans, “the standard itself inherently brings that result into existence.”
Despite “seek[ing] in vain for any ground which would sustain any other interpretation” of the amendment, the Court unanimously determined the provision violated the Fifteenth Amendment because it intentionally targeted a discrete group seeking the vote.
While Oklahoma in 1910 abridged voting rights by choosing an invidious date to exclude African-Americans from voting, Florida in 2014 limited places to stymie young voters from early voting.
Simply put, Defendant’s Opinion reveals a stark pattern of discrimination. It is unexplainable on grounds other than age because it bears so heavily on younger voters than all other voters.
This Court can conceive of fewer ham-handed efforts to abridge the youth vote than Defendant’s affirmative prohibition of on-campus early voting.
The issue is whether the Secretary of State's Opinion that categorically bars early voting on any university or college campus violates the First, Fourteenth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It does. The motion is GRANTED.
“This is the beginning of a much longer conversation around this amendment and around youth democracy,” said Yael Bromberg, Chief Counsel for Voting Rights for The Andrew Goodman Foundation.
The 26th Amendment guarantees voting rights to Americans over the age of 18. However, even as young people still face many barriers to voting, the last decade has seen a profusion of attempts to keep students from exercising that right, from new strict voter identification laws to confusion about the right to vote at campus addresses, to gerrymandering of campus precincts, to efforts to close down campus polling places. Why is this happening? Who doesn’t want students to vote—and why? What can we do to protect our voices and use our power, particularly when the youth vote is on the rise?
Bromberg urges students to reclaim their right to vote and resist attempts to block them from exercising it.
We are witnessing clear attacks on our democracy such as voter suppression and the flood of money in politics. However, lack of voter engagement is a major threat to the system. Our elections are largely decided by those who opt out of voting – either because they don’t believe that their vote matters, or because they are simply not paying attention. We need to overwhelm the system. Register your friends, get to the polls, and get active in politics. If we’re not at the table making the decisions, someone else will be making the decisions for us. Who do you trust to act in your best interest on critical issues like climate, criminal justice, gun control, and student debt? The only way to make our democracy more reflective of the American public is to get engaged. That starts with voting and developing a curiosity in the process.
Although the UFL students won their case, there are numerous other instances where laws have been passed which adversely impact college students. In April 2020, Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge David Anderson ruled against the New Hampshire law that required housing documentation that disadvantaged college students who live in the state but frequently change residences. “The Court strikes down SB 3 as unconstitutional,” Judge Anderson wrote, “for unreasonably burdening the right to vote and violating equal protection under the New Hampshire Constitution.”
The problem with SB 3 is not that it creates a system that encourages voters to be actively turned away from the polls or physically prevents individuals from registering by, for example, requiring specific types of documentation that are impossible for one group to obtain. The burdens imposed by SB 3 are more subtle; the new process establishes enough hurdles, the forms contain enough complexity, and the penalties present enough risk that they tend to dissuade a specific type of voter from even engaging with the process. In this regard, the State's constant refrain that nobody was prevented from voting rings hollow. SB 3 does not stop someone at the polls from casting a ballot; it discourages them from showing up in the first place.
New Hampshire State Senator John Reagan criticized the Court’s decision as “just another Democrat attack on what we tried to see is a fair election process.”
Supporters of the New Hampshire law cited the need to prevent fraud as the reason for tightening restrictions on voting. “We want to encourage people to vote, but if you’re not a resident here, you ought to become a resident if you vote here.”
State Sen. Regina Birdsell echoed the concerns of Republican lawmakers alleging that transient laborers who are ineligible to vote actually cast fraudulent ballots as they move from town to town. “It is absolutely not intended to prevent students from voting,” she said in support of the bill. “It’s temporary workers that we want to make sure that if you say that you’re domiciled here, then you show intent that you want to stay in the community.”
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner had also backed the legislation. “The bill is an attempt to prevent ‘drive-by’ voting,” he said. “You can’t just drive into the state, vote and leave.”
Judge Anderson was not persuaded that the bill would secure the vote rather than suppress it. “Although the legislative record is practically overwhelmed with references to voter fraud, the reality is that voter fraud is virtually non-existent in this state” he wrote.
Instead of making elections more secure, Judge Anderson said the law would make them less fair. “Young, mobile, low-income and homeless voters will all encounter SB 3 and be exposed to its penalties at a higher rate than other voters,” he concluded. “Therefore the burdens imposed by the law are discriminatory, in addition to being unreasonable.”
Without evidence of substantive voter fraud, and given the bill’s disproportionately negative impact on college students and other vulnerable groups, Judge Anderson’s rejection of the new restrictions on ballot access was unequivocable. “Based on the expert testimony,” he wrote, “the Court finds there exists strong evidence that SB 3, if fully implemented, will suppress voter turnout.
There has been an array of other new laws that can hamper student turnout for the upcoming presidential election. A popular one is the banning the use of college ID cards when voting, which is a particularly difficult hurdle to overcome for out of town students who do not have a local driver’s licenses. The regulations vary from state to state and students must quickly find out the photo ID requirements for their states so they have enough time obtain the proper identification prior to voting.
The NewsFacts & Analysis Vote! page provides easy access to state voting deadlines, official registration forms, id requirements, and legal requests for absentee ballots.
There will be a surge in mail voting as people choose to forgo crowded lines to avoid becoming ill or infecting others with Covid-19. Voting rights advocates are urging voters to cast ballots early so precincts can process them efficiently and announce the final results within a few weeks following election on November 3rd.
Normally, the presidential winner is known shortly after the polls close on Election Day. The unprecedented increase in mail voting is expected to slow the count as the Post Office sorts and delivers millions of ballots to election officials who need extra time to carefully and accurately tally the results.
There are concerns that the flurry of new voting regulations might sink college turnout even though polls show that college students have an historic interest in this upcoming presidential election. According to the College Pulse / Knight Foundation study, 71% are certain they will vote, and 18% are fairly certain.
As the analysis of the close election four years ago demonstrated, if college students who intend to vote actually do so, then the high turnout could determine who will become the next President of the United States.
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