The Vote: Impact Of Voter Suppression On Election Outcomes Difficult To Detect

Nov 5, 2013

Sometimes people do not vote because they have been prevented or discouraged from doing so. In the conclusion of our series  The Vote, WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill looks at voter suppression.

The United States, where the right to vote is considered fundamental to our system of government, has a long history of voter suppression.  Laws, administrative procedures, and campaign dirty tricks have been used to try to influence the outcome of elections by means of voter suppression.

Up until the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965, poll taxes and literacy tests were used extensively in Southern states to suppress the votes of African Americans and low-income whites.

In the last 10-15 years 34 states have passed voter ID laws of some kind. Eleven states require a voter to present a photo ID before a ballot can be cast.  This is ostensibly an effort to prevent fraud, but Tim Vercellotti, a professor of political science at Western New England University says it is a solution in search of a problem.

Studies have shown people who live in urban areas with good mass transit, young people who move a lot, the poor, and the very elderly are less likely to have a government-issued photo ID, required in some states to vote.

Vercellotti says research so far indicates the impact of  voter ID laws on turnout is small.

One such advocate is Aron Goldman, Executive Director of the Springfield Institute. The institute has documented and analyzed voter participation disparities in Springfield and Holyoke, Massachusetts. The data shows that largely white wards in the two cities vote at two to three times the rate of wards with a high minority population.

Goldman says there is no evidence of a conspiracy to suppress minority voting in the two cities. He puts the blame on administrative practices by local election officials and what he describes as weak voter protection laws in Massachusetts.

Voter registration in Massachusetts has to be changed proactively when a person moves to a new address. But if voters neglects to do so, they will show up at their neighborhood polling place on Election Day only to be told they can’t vote there.  They’ll be told to go to the polling place where they were last allowed to vote.

This policy discourages people from voting and disproportionately impacts poor people who move more frequently, according to Goldman.  He said this voter suppression would stop if Massachusetts allowed people to register to vote on Election Day.

Same-day voter registration would also thwart another means of voter suppression—the purging of voter registration rolls. Voting rights activists say each year millions of names are removed from voting lists in a process that can be subjective and not transparent.

Springfield Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola  said voter registration lists are updated annually in Massachusetts.  People’s names can be stricken from the list of active voters if they fail to vote regularly, or fail to return an annual census that is mailed to each household.

Modern political campaigns use sophisticated get- out- the vote operations. Campaign operatives identify people who are likely to vote for a particular candidate and take steps to actively encourage those voters to go to the polls on Election Day.  At the same time, some efforts could be made to actively keep other voters away from the polls, according to Springfield-based political consultant Tony Cignoli.

A common voter suppression tactic is to spread disinformation about such things as voter registration requirements, polling place locations, or even the date of the election. Campaigns do this by means of robo-calls and social media that can be hard to trace to the source.

Although there have been documented incidents of voter suppression efforts in several states, the impact on election outcomes is difficult to quantify, according to Vercellotti

Nonetheless, Goldman believes any voter participation disparity undermines the bedrock of our democracy.