(& How to Prevent Most of Them)
By Jeff Milchen, with Brittany Trushel. Last updated, February 25, 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 these voter suppression tactics.
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.
- Obstruct 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
- Burdensome Address Requirements
- Inadequate Early Voting Options
- Delay Implementing Laws to Make Voting Easier
- 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
- Voter Intimidation
- Intimidating Poll Workers
- 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
- Manipulating the Census
I. Active Vote Suppression and Disenfranchisement
1. Obstruct Citizen Initiatives through Onerous Rules
A 2021 Idaho bill would require signatures from 6% of voters in every state district to qualify a ballot question. That would be a burdensome and costly feat, yet more extreme bills lurk in Missouri, including one that would require signatures from 15% of voters in every county. Proposed laws in Missouri and Arizona would require 60% of voters to approve any new initiative.
Extreme signature-gathering requirements would transform the initiative process by requiring huge bankrolls to succeed. In each case above, Republicans propose to obstruct citizen-lawmaking after their constitutents 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). 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.
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
Pre-registration itself disenfranchises many citizens. 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 Election Day registration. Learn more about automatic voting registration.
8. Denying Registrations or Ballots
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’ (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
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
Students, those with low-income, and people of color — all Democratic-leaning groups — are less likely to have official state ID. Republicans often seek to exploit this opportunity to deter them from voting, falsely promoting ID as necessary to prevent voter impersonation. It’s a myth that’s been debunked for more than a decade. Nevertheless, many states have bills pending to create or enlarge ID obstacles.
13. Veiled Poll Taxes
After record turnout among minority voters and a Democratic sweep of two U.S. Senate run-offs, a Georgia Republican seeks to force voters to submit copies of official state identification, both to request a mail ballot, and to submit it. For people who lack easy access to a printer, it’s effectively a poll tax — banned by our Constitution.
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
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, which eases hardship on many wage workers, increases participation, and enables time to correct errors. We urge readers to help permanently extend in-person voting in your state, and support a nationwide minimum of two weeks, including Saturdays.
17. Delay Implementing Laws that Make Voting Easier
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.
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 exceedingly rare. The burden of requiring witness signatures of absentee voters is unjustifiable. More extreme, the Oklahoma House voted to require notarized affidavits to vote absentee and a similar bill was introduced in Arizona in January, 2021.
21. Obstructing Ballot Drop-off
In 2020, after Republicans failed to ban drop-off boxes entirely, Texas Gov. Abbot decreed that counties cannot offer 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. Learn more about tactics used in 2020 and ballot drop-off laws from the Healthy Elections Project.
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.
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. Voter 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.
28. Intimidating Poll Workers
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.
29. 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, birthdates) without alerting voters. In 2016, Arkansas rejected one in twenty absentee ballots, (the national average is one in 100).
30. 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.
31. 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.
32. Banning Ballot Collection
Montana and Arizona criminalized gathering mail-in ballots (“ballot harvesting”) prior to the 2020 elections. Both states have large indigenous populations living on reservations where in-person voting or a drop-off location can require a personal vehicle and hours of drive time. Courts struck down the MT and AZ laws, but attempts are ongoing.
33. 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.
34. 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.
35. 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.
36. 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.
37. 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.
38. 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.
39. The Duopoly Restricting Competition
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).
40. 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. Structural Barriers to Voting and Equal Representation
41. 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.
42. 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.
43. The US 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 signifcant 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 quick 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 The Missing Foundation for Democracy: An Affirmative Right to Vote
- To stay abreast of election law legislation, the Twitter feeds of @rickhasen, @DKElections, @AriBerman, @marceelias @VotebeatUS and their respective blogs and articles are great sources, along with many groups and reporters whose work is linked above.
- 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