Diversity and Community Engagement

The University of Mississippi

UM’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture Addresses Voter Suppression

In this post, Andrew Goodman Foundation Team Leader Jenna Santacroce recaps recent events offered this fall through the Center for the Study of Southern Culture addressing voter suppression and voting rights.

The 2020 Presidential election is one of the most monumental in history. The country, so clearly divided and polarized, is experiencing extreme pushback on both ends of the political spectrum. The University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC) hosted three virtual events which discussed the ways in which some American citizens cast their ballots without issue, while others are severely affected by “voter suppression.” Voter suppression is any effort to influence the outcome of an election by preventing eligible voters from registering to vote or casting their ballot. Voter suppression, which looks much different now than it does in history, is disguised as an attempt to mitigate “voter fraud,” or illegal interference with the election process by voter impersonation, duplicate voting, ineligible and false registrations, and more. Studies have proven voter fraud to be a rare occurrence, however, by claiming to prevent voter fraud, political leaders are able to establish standards and implement policies that prevent certain individuals from voting. The most affected group of individuals who face voter suppression are people of color. The elderly, students, and people with disabilities are also affected by voter suppression. 

Historian Carol Anderson, alongside other historian colleagues, discussed the history of voter suppression during the Speaker Sessions and Roundtable Discussions hosted by CSSC. They shared that while some groups are affected more than others, voter suppression at large does not follow one specific mode and does not have one specific target. Historically, voter suppression has included outright violence and aggression as well as systematic suppression through government policies. Often, these policies target the most vulnerable (such as the elderly and people with disabilities), or groups that have faced long standing social and political suppression, notably communities of color. Starting after the Reconstruction, southern states began to implicate policies to repress votes, justifying these policies were reasonable for protecting the election. Poll taxes and literacy tests were deemed necessary to fund elections and to provide for an educated electorate, however these laws intentionally overlooked the long standing effects of slavey and poverty, charging disproportionate amounts and ignoring the underfunding of African American schools throughout the south. 

Discriminatory policies escape scrutiny by appearing “universal,” ignoring how one policy will affect groups differently. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped to alleviate barriers to voting, especially in the south, by outlawing poll taxes and literacy tests and by monitoring areas known for voter suppression. However, voter suppression continues due to government loopholes and denial of responsibility. Voter suppression today takes on a familiar but different form.

The historians in these CSSC events explained how to identify voter suppression today as it is less blatant and much more covert. Limited access to polling locations is one of the most prominent modern tactics of voter suppression. In Georgia specifically, where CSSC speaker Carol Anderson is from, there are exceptionally long lines at voting stations. This year, the state of Georgia purchased new voting machines despite being advised not to by election officials. The machines were inefficient and created a lengthy voting process by requiring the voter to insert a piece of paper, taking the time to process the paper, then processing the citizens’ votes. Also, these new voting machines were large and only a limited amount were able to fit in voting locations, therefore, only a limited number of people were able to vote at once. The state of Georgia knowingly established a voting system that required voters to wait for hours in lines. People may leave these long lines and tell their friends, family, and communities, inadvertently discouraging them to vote. Carol Ansderson explains these long lines are not accidents and have happened repeatedly in history. These long lines are designed tactics of voter suppression.

New voter identification laws are a heavily debated form of voter suppression. Following the Supreme Court case of Shelby County vs. Holder in 2013, areas with a history of voter suppression are no longer required to receive federal approval for policy changes related to voter eligibility. Similar to using the justification of “universal application” from past policies, voter ID laws are subjective because they can often prioritize access to one type of ID over another, and do not take into account how difficult it may be to receive an identification card due to cost, time, or geographical location. Texas, for example, has allowed the use of firearm registration cards as acceptable voter ID, but has not allowed student ID. This is especially perilous in large states, where citizens may not have easy access to locations to receive adequate identification. The repeal of sections of the Voting Rights Act also led to voter roll purges across the country. Voter roll purges disproportionately target new voters and people of color, by targeting those without a history of repeated voting or by matching voter registration across states by name only, not incorporating any other identifying information. These voter roll purges also removed names if the information did not exactly match information in a state record book, so registrations with minor misspellings or different uses of hyphens were removed.

There is no clear path to remove discriminatory voting laws or practices. There have been calls to create an amendment to the Constitution that guarantees universal suffrage, however one has not been passed yet. The best thing we can do to eliminate voter fraud is to learn about voting rights, and to report states and voting sites that violate these rights. Grassroots organizations and civil rights groups continue to advocate for increased access to voting. The speakers at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture discussions are hopeful that with enough public pressure, we can work towards ensuring everyone has equal access to voting.


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