Voter Suppression Is Warping Democracy
A new survey from The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute shows that black and Hispanic citizens are more likely than whites to face barriers at the polls—and to fear the future erosion of their basic political rights.
Voter suppression almost certainly helped Donald Trump win the presidency. Multiple academic studies and court rulings indicate that racially biased election laws, such as voter-ID legislation in places like Wisconsin, favored Republican candidates in 2016. Like most other elections in American history, this one wasn’t a fair fight.
A new poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic has uncovered evidence of deep structural barriers to the ballot for black and Latino voters, specifically in the 2016 election. More than that, the survey finds that the deep wounds of Jim Crow endure, leaving America’s democratic promise unfulfilled.
The real extent of voter suppression in the United States is contested. As was the case for poll taxes and literacy tests long ago, restrictive election laws are often, on their face, racially neutral, giving them a sheen of legitimacy. But the new data from PRRI and The Atlantic suggest that the outcomes of these laws are in no way racially neutral. The poll, conducted in June, surveyed Americans about their experiences with voting, their assessments of the country’s political system, and their interfaces with civics. The results, especially when analyzed by race, are troublesome. They indicate that voter suppression is commonplace, and that voting is routinely harder for people of color than for their white counterparts.
The new data support perhaps the worst-case scenario offered by opponents of restrictive voting laws. Nine percent of black respondents and 9 percent of Hispanic respondents indicated that, in the last election, they (or someone in their household) were told that they lacked the proper identification to vote. Just 3 percent of whites said the same. Ten percent of black respondents and 11 percent of Hispanic respondents reported that they were incorrectly told that they weren’t listed on voter rolls, as opposed to 5 percent of white respondents. In all, across just about every issue identified as a common barrier to voting, black and Hispanic respondents were twice as likely, or more, to have experienced those barriers as white respondents.
The numbers suggest not only that policies such as voter-ID requirements and automatic voter purges do, indeed, have strong racial and ethnic biases, but also that there are more subtle barriers for people of color that compound the effects of these laws. Fifteen percent of black respondents and 14 percent of Hispanic respondents said that they had trouble finding polling places on Election Day, versus 5 percent of whites. This finding squares with research indicating that frequent changes to polling-site locations hurt minority voters more. Additionally, more than one in 10 blacks and Hispanics missed the registration deadline to vote in 2016, as opposed to just 3 percent of whites. And black and Hispanic respondents were twice as likely as white respondents to have been unable to get time off of work for voting.
Informal roadblocks exist as well. Under the specter of alleged voter fraud by noncitizens—which was based more on anti-immigrant sentiment than any data or other evidence—and amid increasingly incendiary rhetoric about Latinos, Hispanic voters found 2016 especially difficult. “Roughly one in 10 Hispanics said that the last time they or someone in their household tried to vote, they were bothered at the polls,” Dan Cox, the research director at PRRI, told me. “If you think about the idea of a stolen election, it fits easily into this broader narrative of cultural threat, where perceived outsiders are taking something away from people who were already there.”
These results add credence to what many critics of restrictive voting laws have long suspected. First, voter-ID laws and other similar statutes aren’t passed in a vacuum, but rather in a country where people of color are significantly less likely to be able to meet the new requirements. Whether intended to discriminate or not, these laws discriminate in effect, and while there is no evidence that they’ve averted any kind of fraud, there is plenty of data detailing just how they’ve created Republican advantages. In that way, Trump’s chances in 2016 may have turned not only on the approval or disapproval of white voters, but also on how effectively state laws, access issues, and social penalties conspired to keep black and Hispanic voters away from polling places.
This is the reality that drives minority fears of a country in regression. The survey’s respondents, as a whole, were actually more likely than those of any PRRI sample over the past seven years to report that things in the country are going in the right direction. But 86 percent of black respondents and 74 percent of Hispanic respondents believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. That finding is supported by data from other pollsters that suggest that the vast majority of black people are facing levels of anxiety and fear about the future that are unprecedented in recent memory.
More troublesome still, previous data from 2016 show that there are good reasons for those fears. In the same year that a federal court decried North Carolina’s voter-ID laws as deliberately discriminatory machinations that “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” similar laws—which require identification at the ballot box that low-income, black, and Latino voters are less likely than middle-class whites to have—changed electoral outcomes in other states. In Wisconsin, a study found that the number of Democrats who didn’t vote because they lacked proper ID exceeded Trump’s margin of victory, and that the biggest decreases in turnout were in black neighborhoods, a clear signal that race-based voter suppression was in play. Republican officials in the state said that the voter-ID law might have been powerful enough to change the outcome of the presidential election in Wisconsin.
For black voters especially, the prospect of voter suppression fueling minority disenfranchisement nationwide isn’t an idea that takes much imagination. Accordingly, 68 percent of black respondents in the PRRI poll think that disenfranchisement is a major problem, and a similar proportion believe that disenfranchisement is the biggest electoral problem in America.
“When you want to look at the issue where perhaps there is the largest difference by race and ethnicity when it comes to voting and the election system [it’s] on this question of disenfranchisement,” Cox said. “Only 27 percent of white Americans say that eligible voters being denied the right to vote is a major problem today, and you have really strong majorities of black and Hispanic Americans—six in 10, roughly—saying that it is a major concern.”
As Cox noted, unlike the major divides on most survey questions between whites with and without college degrees, these two groups responded pretty much identically when it came to their low prioritization of disenfranchisement. That suggests that concern about disenfranchisement arises from experience, not necessarily from party or ideological affiliation.
Reflecting the distribution of the greater population, black and Hispanic respondents were most likely to live in the American South. Their voting patterns and concerns were thus likely to be affected by the region’s history of disenfranchisement, as well as its newer voting laws and barriers. For example, 37 percent of white respondents reported that their parents had taken them to a voting booth when they were children, versus 24 percent of black respondents and 18 percent of Hispanics. In a region where, because of Jim Crow, many middle-aged or older people of color may not have had a parent who was even eligible to vote during their childhood, voting simply isn’t as established an intergenerational civic institution as it is in white communities—even as it faces new threats today.
In the case of the country’s most marginalized voters, past and present conspire. It’s often been reported that cultural and economic anxieties drove white voters to Trump, and that their gravitation has also corresponded with a weakening of democratic norms. But black and Hispanic voters are even more anxious and desperate, and that’s at least in part because democratic norms—if this trial run of racially inclusive democracy can even be referred to as a “norm”—are crumbling in their hands. Blows to the hard-won victory of the franchise already helped turn the tables in one election. But black and Hispanic voters are worried just as much about the elections to come.
This project is supported by grants from the Joyce, Kresge, and McKnight Foundations.