(& How to Prevent Most of Them)
By Jeff Milchen
Last updated April 17, 2021
U.S. elections overseers called the 2020 election, “The most secure in history,” and state election officials of both major parties agreed. Yet inclusiveness is no less important than security, and attacks on voting rights are escalating. During just the first seven weeks of 2021, legislators across 43 states proposed more than 250 bills to restrict voting.
Our collection below summarizes the most impactful tactics and structures that impede voting or deny equal voting power, with examples. We also provide an overview of legislative and constitutional solutions to voter suppression. Most urgent among these, the “For the People Act” would preclude nearly every tactic described in #1-#43. See our FPA overview and action recommendations.
Reclaim Democracy! is a non-partisan organization, but fair and accurate reporting on voter suppression can be “balanced,” as the Republican Party is the force behind almost all examples cited here. While we focus on the most common or impactful tactics, this list is not comprehensive.
- Obstructing Citizen Initiatives Through Onerous Rules
- District Gerrymandering
- Prison Gerrymandering
- Judicial Gerrymandering
- Purging Voter Rolls
- Oppressive Requirements for Voter Registration
- Voter Pre-Registration
- Denying Registrations or Ballots
- Barring Ex-Convicts from Voting
- Denying Citizenship to People Born in US Territories
- Restricting Access to Voter Registration Materials
- Burdensome Voter ID Requirements
- Veiled Poll Taxes and Requiring ID to Vote by Mail
- Burdensome Address Requirements
- Inadequate Early Voting Options
- Delaying Implementation of Voter Access Laws
- Forcing Citizens to Choose Between Safety or Voting
- Age Discrimination
- Requiring Witnesses or Notarization for Absentee Ballots
- Obstructing (or Banning) Ballot Drop-off
- Signature Challenges on Mail-in Ballots
- Partisan Scrutiny of Voter Registrations
- Insufficient Number of Polling Places
- Insufficient Voting Equipment
- Blocking Free Voter Shuttles
- Ban Mobile Voting
- Voter Intimidation
- Intimidating Poll Workers & Election Officials
- Leaving No Time for Error
- Making Citizens Doubt Our Votes Will Count
- Impeding Students from Voting
- Impeding GOTV Drives
- Banning Ballot Collection
- Denying Voters an Opportunity to Fix Errors
- Inadequate Ballot Security
- Sabotaging The US Postal Service
- Strip Voters’ Choice of Power When the Opposition Wins
- Challenge Electoral College Votes
- Allocate Electoral Votes by Congressional District
- The Duopoly Restricting Competition
- Suffocate Funding for Elections Operations
- Manipulating the Census
- Criminalizing Provision of Basic Supplies
- Discarding Citizens’ Votes for President
- Unreasonable Residency Requirements
I. Active Vote Suppression and Disenfranchisement
1. Obstructing Citizen Initiatives Through Onerous Rules
A 2021 Missouri bill would require signatures from 15% of voters in every congressional district in the state just to place a question for the ballot. Despite the lower percentage, an Idaho proposal requiring endorsement from 6% of voters in every state district would be a burdensome and costly feat. Extreme signature-gathering requirements would transform the initiative process by requiring huge bankrolls to succeed.
In Utah, a dark-money group is behind a bill to obstruct initiatives with more subtle, but no less burdensome tactics. In another approach, Missouri, Arizona, and other states would require any new initiative be approved by a supermajority to win. In each case above, Republicans propose to obstruct citizen-lawmaking after their constituents passed progressive ballot initiatives.
2. District Gerrymandering
The dominant political party, rather than a public-serving body, draws voting districts in most states, and typically aim to favor the party in power and minimize competition. In 2012, Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic than Republican U.S. House candidates, but Rs won 13 of 18 seats.
Without reform, the situation is likely to worsen following the 2020 census after the SCOTUS ruled that federal courts lack authority to ensure fair voting districts. Republicans control redistricting in 20 states and Democrats in seven (the rests have independent commissions or divided government). All About Redistricting and FairVote are great sources to learn more.
3. Prison Gerrymandering
Inmates often are counted for apportioning legislative seats where they are imprisoned, yet they cannot vote. This shifts political power to (mostly) rural areas like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan’s meandering district — crafted to include three prisons housing more than 12,000 inmates!
4. Judicial Gerrymandering
Pennsylvania Republicans are pushing a state constitutional amendment to radically alter its appeals courts by electing judges based on newly created districts (drawn by Republicans) instead of statewide elections. The state’s appellate judges have protected voters from anti-democratic schemes in the past, as the state’s Supreme Court rejected a Republican lawsuit to overthrow the 2020 presidential election results. Thankfully, the proposed plan would have to be ratified by Pennsylvania voters.
5. Purging Voter Rolls
Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia and Ohio are among many states aggressively purging voter rolls — using lack of voting as a trigger to rescind registration. After not voting for as few as two elections, a bulk mailing may be sent instructing a voter to verify their registration or be removed from the rolls. These notices may appear to be junk mail. Ohio’s data demonstrates a high percentage of active voters simply sit out some elections. Learn more. Bills to accelerate voter purges were pending in AL, AZ, CA, HI, MI, MO, MS, NH, NJ, PA, SC, SD, TX, UT as of March 15.
6. Oppressive Requirements for Voter Registration
Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas all have required birth certificates or passports to register, leaving tens of thousands of citizens unable to vote because they lack the documentation. This can be costly and time-consuming (and for some, nearly impossible) to acquire. Learn more.
7. Voter Pre-Registration
In Oneida County, New York, 2,400 people submitted timely registration forms in 2020, but were never registered. The district’s congressional race went undecided for three months and the margin was just over 100 votes. We support automatic federal registration (as most democracies have), enabling citizens to register online and on Election Day. Learn more about automatic voting registration.
8. Denying Registrations or Ballots
A pending federal lawsuit claims Georgia prevented 53,000 voter registrations, before the 2018 election. The rejections came from Georgia’s “exact match” policy, which flags applications with hyphenated names, extra spaces, and nicknames. In 2020, Republicans invalidated 100,000 absentee ballot requests on this technicality. More than 6,500 absentee ballot requests were denied in Ohio in 2018 due to signature issues. This powerful voter suppression tactic can impede significant portions of people.
9. Barring Ex-Convicts from Voting
Many states withhold the vote from people who’ve completed sentences for a felony, disenfranchising more than six million citizens. Such laws originated with racist intent and disenfranchise Black citizens at nearly four times the rate of others today.
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly voted to restore voting rights to ex-felons. However, the Florida Supreme Court approved Gov. DeSantis’s (R) scheme to deny voters’ will and refuse to reinstate voting rights if any fines or fees are outstanding. Arkansas employs the same discriminatory scheme. Learn more.
10. Denying Citizenship to People Born in US Territories
The Department of Justice, under both Obama and Trump, fought to deny voting rights to American Samoans who legally are “nationals,” not citizens. The 10th Circuit Appeals Court heard arguments in Fitisemanu v. United States in Sep., 2020.
11. Restricting Access to Voter Registration Materials
On the wave of the coronavirus pandemic, all registered Georgia voters received absentee ballot applications, resulting in record numbers of absentee voting in the 2020 election. The 2021 Georgia voting law made this practice illegal. In the heavily Latino and urban Harris County (Houston), Texas, the local U.S. Post Office branch refused to carry voter registration materials.
12. Burdensome Voter ID Requirements
Voter ID requirement vary widely among states, but people impersonating another voter is almost unheard of nationwide, since few people will risk years in prison for a lottery ticket’s chance of turning an election. Laws requiring some form of ID generates little opposition, but laws that require certain forms of state ID and reject others often aim to suppress students, those with low-income, and people of color — the groups least likely to have a drivers license or passport. About 11% of eligible voters lack official government ID. Efforts to enact strict new ID laws consistently promote false stories of voter impersonation.
13. Veiled Poll Taxes and Requiring ID to Vote by Mail
Among the provisions in Georgia’s bundle of new regulations enacted in March, 2021 is one requiring voters to submit photocopies of approved government ID or include their state ID number (both to request a mail ballot, and to submit it). Indiana is advancing a similar bill (SB 353) rife with opportunities for confusion. The rare instances of people returning the ballot of a family member or roommate are unlikely to be prevented by the law, but for people who lack easy access to a printer, it’s effectively a poll tax — banned by our Constitution. In addition, requiring user-paid postage adds another obstacle for many people. Currently, 12 states provide postage-paid ballots.
14. Burdensome Address Requirements
The SCOTUS has enabled voter suppression simply for living where conventional postal addresses are not used, which is especially common on Native American reservations. In Utah, for example, 75% of San Juan County (Navajo Nation) residents lack street addresses that conform to state ID rules. A federal court in 2020 found only 18% of American Indian registered voters have home mail service. Learn more from reports by The Brennan Center and Pew.
Vehicles for disinformation (meaning intentionally deceptive, not mistaken) include robocalls fliers, ads, and paid social media posts falsely reporting voting methods, hours, or locations, or attempting to intimidate potential voters. These tactics frequently target minority communities.
While judges may block such schemes, the damage often is done before action can be taken and cannot be remedied. Local elections agencies also have circulated wrong information that could disenfranchise voters. Perpetrators are rarely prosecuted, though the DOJ announced an arrest in January of 2021.
16. Inadequate Early Voting Options
A 2021 Georgia voting law severely restricts early voting hours, impeding those lack flexible work schedules. The 2020 pandemic led to broad expansion of early voting days, helping increase participation and reduce Election Day lines. Voters should have ample opportunity to vote early in-person. We urge permanently extending in-person voting and support a nationwide minimum of two weeks, including Saturdays.
17. Delaying Implementation of Voter Access Laws
Kansas passed a law in early 2019 enabling citizens to vote at any polling place in their county, which allows many to vote near their place of work, study, or home. The Republican Secretary of State has moved so slowly that the law may not take effect for nearly five years (i.e., August 2023).
18. Forcing Citizens to Choose Between Safety or Voting
Many states require an “excuse” affidavit to apply for mail-in voting — even during the pandemic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri’s absentee voting remained notoriously difficult while the Governor dismissed objections to this voter suppression tactic. Bills to limit voting by mail are pending in AL, AZ, CO, GA, MN, MO, MS, MT, ND, OK, PA, SC, and WA as of March 15.
19. Age Discrimination
Despite our Constitution prohibiting any state from abridging the right to on account of age, multiple states have a dual standard for absentee voting, with those aged 65 and older (who skew Republican) enjoying easier access. Alaska mailed ballots directly to voters aged 65 and older, but not to others.
20. Requiring Witnesses or Notarization for Absentee Ballots
Misrepresenting a ballot is a felony offense, and forged signatures are rare. The burden of requiring witness signatures for absentee ballots is unjustifiable. Alaska, Alabama, and South Dakota require witnessed affidavits for absentee voting. Mississippi has the most Draconian absentee ballot process, requiring an official witness for both the absentee voting application and returned ballot. A pending (as of March 2021) bill in Arizona would require notarized ballots for absentee voting. Bills imposing new signature witness requirements were pending in AK, AZ, CA, MS, SC, and VA as of March 15.
21. Obstructing Ballot Drop-off
Georgia’s 2021 voting law may not only reduce the number of ballot drop boxes in metropolitan Atlanta by 75%, but will restrict access to drop boxes during non-business hours. In 2020, after Republicans failed to ban drop-off boxes entirely in Texas, Gov. Abbot forbid counties from offering more than one drop box location. For context, the Democratic stronghold of Harris County (including Houston), is nearly 50% larger than Rhode Island. Multiple state bills have been introduced in 2021 to ban drop boxes entirely. See the Healthy Elections Project for more on drop-off voting and this report on 2020 tactics to obstruct it.
22. Signature Challenges on Mail-In Ballots
Signatures deemed to be “mismatched” by election officials often are arbitrary, disproportionately void minority votes, but also disenfranchise seniors, women, and too many citizens of every age. Voting another’s ballot is a rarity and a felony, so signature checks should have a pro-inclusion bias. Yet that is not the case. An Ohio lawsuit maintained that 97% of voters rejected were likely to be wrongly disenfranchised. Bills imposing nw signature match requirements were pending in CT, PA and SC as of March 15.
23. Selective Partisan Scrutiny of Voter Registrations
The Trump Administration selectively checked signatures against voter registration files in heavily-Democratic localities like Broward County, Florida and Clark County, Nevada.
24. Insufficient Number of Polling Places
Among many examples, former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp closed nearly 200 polling places in areas likely to favor his opponent in running for Governor (Stacey Abrams). Texas promptly closed 750 polling places the day after the SCOTUS gutted the Voting Rights Act. Creating long waits to vote in minority-heavy districts is a timeless suppression tactic.
25. Insufficient Voting Equipment
Providing too few machines per capita to urban precincts is a common tactic for generating burdensome lines. See Brennan Center report.
26. Blocking Free Voter Shuttles
Michigan banned companies from offering free or discounted rides to voting locations and barred advocacy groups from paying for such rides. A federal appeals court upheld the law. In Georgia, State Police are accused of stopping vehicles shuttling Black voters to polls, and elderly Black voters were ordered off a voting bus shuttle.
27. Ban Mobile Voting
Mobile voting provides a choice for voters whose travel ability is limited, especially where voting by mail is not a universal option. Mobile units can relieve long waits at regular in-person poll sites and offered a safe voting option during the 2020 pandemic. Georgia’s 2021 law banned mobile voting.
28. Voter Intimidation
The 2021 Georgia voting law established a hotline to report “illegal election activities” for investigation to the State Attorney General, an elected partisan. As research has found low instances of election fraud, this hotline could be a tool of intimidation. There is a long, long history of Republican operatives attempting to intimidate voters in minority-heavy areas. Donald Trump’s incitements to join an “army” of poll watchers in 2020 sparked fear of trouble, since a legal agreement to halt intimidation tactics by the Republican Party expired in 2018. Thankfully, officials prepared well and 2020 problems were modest.
29. Intimidating Poll Workers & Election Officials
The 2021 Georgia voting law grants the State Election Board power to suspend local officials for “malfeasance” of their duties. State and local officials have been at odds in democratic Fulton County, where local officials received harassment and threats, stemming from Republican attacks. The Trump Administration lost a lawsuit to force Clark County, NV, which includes Las Vegas, to make names of ballot workers public. Donald Trump’s false claims incited death threats against poll workers in Georgia and many other states.
30. Leaving No Time for Error
Georgia’s closure of almost 900 polling places resulted in day-long waits and confusion as to which precinct a voter belongs – mainly affecting Black communities. During the 2020 primary, 67% of polling places stayed open late, to accommodate the voters waiting in line because of Election Day problems – also mainly affecting Black communities. Georgia’s 2021 voting law takes Black voter suppression a step further, restricting the time a precinct can remain open if a problem arises. The new law also makes voting more difficult for those who show up to the wrong prescient.
31. Making Citizens Doubt Whether Our Votes Will Count
Countless false accusations of fraud left many voters without confidence their votes would count in 2020. In Arkansas, absentee ballots are disqualified for minor mistakes (e.g., discrepancies with address formats, signatures, birth dates) without alerting voters. In 2016, Arkansas rejected one in twenty absentee ballots, (the national average is one in 100).
32. Impeding Students from Voting
Intimidation, excessive ID requirements, and confusion surrounding the voting process all disenfranchise college students. Many states reject student ID for voting. Texas rejects photo ID from state-run universities for voting, but accepts gun licenses. A 2021 New Hampshire bill would disenfranchise any student living in a dorm. See more examples of laws targeting student voters.
33. Impeding GOTV Drives
In 2010 Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot (now Governor) abused his power to sabotage Houston Votes, a non-profit voter registration group. Until blocked in court, South Carolina required social security numbers on voter registration forms, crippling get-out-the-vote efforts by groups wary of violating privacy laws. In some cases, advocacy groups have invited backlash by repeatedly mailing pre-completed forms to unregistered voters.
34. Banning Ballot Collection
Montana and Arizona criminalized ballot collection prior to the 2020 elections. Both states have large populations living on Native American reservations where many citizens rely on ballot collection help because voting in-person voting or at a ballot drop-box can require a personal vehicle and hours of drive time. Courts struck down the MT and AZ laws, but attempts are ongoing in multiple states.
Ballot collection does carry some risk of fraud, but the best protection, enabling voters to track their ballot, does not hinder voting at all. Bills restricting ballot assistance were pending in AK, AZ, CT, KS, KY, MD, MN, NY, OK as of March 15). Note: “ballot harvesting” is a pejorative — collection is an accurate and neutral term.
35. Denying Voters an Opportunity to Fix Errors
On mailed ballots, voters often sign in the wrong place, fail to properly use a security envelope, or make other procedural errors. When time allows, voters should be notified and given the chance fix the problem (called “curing”). Too often, voters ballots are discarded without their knowledge.
36. Inadequate Ballot Security
At least one claim made by Donald Trump in 2020 was based on a real incident, as a contractor in Pennsylvania apparently tossed nine ballots into a dumpster. Learn more about ballot security. Also, thirteen states lack any statutory requirement for voting machines to have a paper trail.
37. Sabotaging the U.S. Postal Service
In 2020, many USPS actions discouraged voting by mail, including raising rates charged to state and local governments, radically slowing delivery, and more. It could have been far worse.
38. Strip Voters’ Choice of Power When the Opposition Wins
After Democrats swept every statewide race in Wisconsin in 2018, Republicans — who held a legislative majority only through gerrymandering — stripped long-standing powers from the Governor before the transition. They also made voting more difficult in future elections. Kentucky Republicans are employing the same voter suppression tactic.
39. Challenge Electoral College Votes
If anyone believed attempts to subvert citizens’ votes would end with the Trump presidency, actions by Michigan and Arizona Republicans in early 2021 suggest otherwise. The latter would legalize the corruption Donald Trump encouraged in 2020 by enabling legislators to ignore voters entirely and give the state’s electoral votes to their preferred candidate.
40. Allocate Electoral Votes by Congressional District
Splitting a state’s electoral votes by district (as Maine and Nebraska do), rather than winner-take-all, would make most states’ electoral votes more democratic. But in heavily gerrymandered states where districts already are drawn to enable minority rule, it could disenfranchise a majority of voters. Such bills were introduced in January of 2012 in Arizona, Mississippi and Wisconsin.
41. The Duopoly Restricting Competition
The 2021 Georgia voting law places the State Election Board under partisan legislative control and strips power from the Secretary of State, in possible retaliation for the current Secretary for refusing the Trump Administration’s request to alter the 2020 vote count. Nothing in our Constitution mentions political parties, and the founders feared them. Yet two dominant parties now cooperate (primarily via state laws) to cripple competition and restrict voters’ choices. For all elections involving U.S. congressional seats, national standards should require non-partisan election officials, as well as neutral rules for ballot access and candidate debates (including presidential debates).
42. Suffocate Funding for Elections Operations
Georgia’s 2021 voting law bans grants or funding from anyone other than local, State, or federal sources. Republicans have cut funding for election security, withheld funding from states expanding absentee voting, and held funding hostage over partisan spending fights. Funding shortfalls have forced local municipalities to turn to outside fundraising to cover basic elections operations. Arizona, North Dakota, and Texas are weighing similar bills.
43. Manipulating the Census
The once-per-decade census determines allocation of Congressional seats. Electoral College votes, and federal funding to localities for many programs. Prior to the 2020 census, the Trump Administration launched a plan to exclude undocumented immigrants for the first time, seemingly for partisan purposes. President Biden rescinded this voter suppression plan upon taking office.
II. Voter Suppression Tactics in State Bills, Not Yet Enacted
44. Criminalizing Provision of Comfort
A dozen voter suppression bills were pending in Georgia as of March 9, 2021. Among them, HB 531 would ban distributing food and drink to people waiting in line to vote. It would be an arrestable offense.
45. Discarding Citizens’ Votes for President
An Arizona bill would amend the state constitution, enabling state lawmakers to override citizens’ votes and decide themselves which presidential candidate receives the state’s 11 electoral votes.
46. Unreasonable Residency Requirements
In North Dakota, an introduced bill would require a person to live in the state for at least one year before being allowed to vote — potentially leaving someone without a vote anywhere for up to 103 weeks! It also would require someone to live in their precinct for 90 days prior to voting.
III. Structural Barriers to Voting and Equal Representation
47. Denying Representation to Citizens Living Outside of States
The U.S. denies voting Congressional representation to citizens living in Washington, D.C, or U.S. territories, disenfranchising about 700,000 citizens in Washington and 3.6 million in Puerto Rico and other island territories. Puerto Rico’s citizens outnumber those of 21 states, but territory residents are denied even a vote for their President. More than 98 percent of them are people of color.
48. The Electoral College
Along with discounting the votes of citizens in more populous states, voters outside of the few true “swing states” are ignored and effectively disenfranchised in every presidential election. The argument that the Electoral College could prevent a dangerous or unfit person from taking power — while credible in the 1700s — led to the opposite in 2016.
49. The U.S. Senate
The Senate’s bias against citizens living in populous states means a Californian has just 1/67th of a Wyoming resident’s representation in Senate. When combined with the current norm of Democrats allowing filibusters, just 41 Senators — potentially representing fewer than 10% of Americans — can wield veto power over a proposed bill or nominee. See Fixing the Senate for ideas on reform.
What About Real Instances of Voter Fraud?
The best evidence that U.S. elections are free of significant fraud comes from the folks working feverishly to prove it’s a serious problem: the right-wing Heritage Foundation. For years, their staff has combed the country for examples of fraud and maintains a database of “proven instances of election fraud.” They claim to have found more than 1300 cases… over two decades (many of which are not fraud, but human errors). In the 2020 general election alone, more than 158 million ballots were cast.
We looked up the findings for our home base of Montana and found exactly one case: a man submitted his ex-wife’s ballot after she’d moved from their home.
III. Taking the Initiative to Affirm Our Democratic Rights
First, our call to engage in constitutional reform is not a rejection of legislative approaches, but an essential partner to them. As of February 1, 2021, there are at least three pending voting rights bills in Congress deserving support HR4 (“The John Lewis Voting Rights Act”) focuses on restoring many protections the Supreme Court eviscerated with it’s 2013 Shelby v Holder ruling. HR1 / S1: a massive voting rights package that would banish many tactics and barriers detailed above (see our summary or a thorough indexed guide). Also, the Vote at Home Act would solidify mail-in voting options.
We hope to see rapid passage of many protections in these bills. However, we caution against relying solely on legislation. The Chief Justice and a majority of the SCOTUS have shown overt hostility to voters and a willingness to override overwhelming bipartisan votes by Congress. Thus, legislative fixes are an important step forward, not a long-term solution (see our Right to Vote Amendment page for a more detailed case).
The survival of fundamental rights must not depend on fleeting majorities within Congress or the Supreme Court. We advance democracy and secure our rights by driving them into the Constitution.
In 2001, we began work with a small network of pro-democracy groups toward amending the Constitution with an affirmative right to vote. While this approach was largely ignored for many years, we finally are seeing a true shift in awareness and broader embrace of the need to transform voting from a privilege to a right.
Learn more and take action! See Why We Need an Affirmative Right to Vote
- A Leap Forward for Democracy Is Within Our Grasp (“For the People Act” overview and action links)
- To stay abreast of election law legislation, the Twitter feeds of @rickhasen, @marceelias @DKElections, @AriBerman, @VotebeatUS and their respective newsletters and blogs are recommended sources, along with many groups and reporters whose work is linked above.
- Landmarks in Voting History & Law
- Key Elements of a Right to Vote Amendment
- See where your state ranks in ease/difficulty of voting
- 2021 Report from the National Task Force on Election Crises and pre-election reports
- Election in Peril: Procedural Risks to the 2020 Presidential Election
- Considering History: The Fight for Native American Citizenship and Voting Rights
- The Election Administration and Voting Survey: 2016 Comprehensive Report
- 10 Popular Voter Fraud Stories Debunked (2020)
- Trump’s Own “Voter Fraud Squad” Failed to Find Any Evidence (2018)
- Biden nominates three voting rights advocates to key positions at DOJ