Voting Rights in 2018: A Postmortem

By Katie Grover

Nearly six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act that required states and localities to “preclear,” or obtain approval from the federal government before making any changes to election procedures. While the Court did not hold the preclearance requirement unconstitutional on its face, it held that the formula used to determine which states are subject to preclearance was essentially outdated, rendering it ineffective until Congress can update the statute. Since then, advocates have documented numerous instances of voting rights erosions (see Shelby County v. Holder).

While the Court found that the Voting Rights Act no longer reflected modern circumstances and that the country had changed, so too, have methods of voter suppression. Minority groups, such as African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos have been specifically targeted by policies that disproportionately affect them. In place of the grandfather clauses and literacy tests of the past, modern methods for limiting voting access are more likely to require voter identification, purge voter rolls and limit early voting opportunities – which minority and low income voters disproportionately utilize. Even amid historic high voter turnout, the 2018 Midterm elections were littered with such tactics. This article explores the most prevalent of these methods.

Voter Purges

Voter purges have emerged as one of the most prolific methods of voter suppression in the aftermath of Shelby County v. Holder. When handled properly, states purge voter rolls to remove those no longer eligible to vote, such as individuals who have moved or passed away. Political operatives, however, have used them to disenfranchise eligible voters, often disproportionately purging minorities.

Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacy Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp drew national attention amid accusations of racially motivated voter purges. During his tenure as Georgia’s Secretary of State, Kemp’s office purged an estimated 1.5 million registered voters between 2012 and 2016. Leading into the election, Kemp flagged over 50,000 voter registration applications under Georgia’s controversial “exact match” policy, which required that the names on voter registration applications exactly match what the state has on file. Discrepancies in spelling, hyphenation or omitted middle names resulted in ineligibility. The AP reported that over 70% of the 53,000 flagged applications were from African American voters, despite the state’s African American population hovering around one third. In the end, Kemp defeated Abrams 50.2% to 48.8% to win the Governor’s office. In her concession speech, Abrams promised to sue the state for “gross mismanagement” of the election.

Indiana and Ohio also purged voters who did not vote in the past two federal elections and whose addresses were not confirmed with the state. Ohio’s right to purge these voters was upheld by the Supreme Court. Moreover, voter purges have been on the rise since Shelby County, with nearly four million more voters purged between 2014 and 2016 than in 2006 and 2008.

Voter ID Laws

Laws requiring that voters present state-issued photo identification such as a driver’s license, which minorities and low-income individuals are less likely to possess, have also emerged as an avenue for voter suppression. These controversial requirements played a role in the 2018 North Dakota Senate race in one of the most finely calibrated, racially targeted voter suppression campaigns in recent memory.

North Dakota Republicans began pushing for this law immediately following Heidi Heitkamp’s nail-biting 3,000-vote Senate victory in 2012, a race in which Native Americans were a crucial part of the electorate. In order to register, the law required that voters present a valid, state-issued ID that lists a residential address, specifically excluding P.O. boxes. Native American voters, many of which live on reservations where residential addresses are not assigned, rely instead on P.O. boxes. Indeed, Native Americans were twice as likely as other North Dakotans to lack the required ID. Prior to election day, the Supreme Court declined to reinstate an injunction that had prevented the state from enforcing the law due to racially motivated concerns.

In Kansas, Republican Gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State Kris Kobach engineered some of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country. One of these laws – which was struck down in 2018 – required that voters not only provide proper ID to register, but also provide documentation of citizenship. The requirement proved problematic for those who registered at the DMV, as these documents are not required to obtain a driver’s license. If potential voters failed to bring proof of citizenship to the DMV when applying for or renewing their licenses, many were unwilling or unable to make a second trip to register to vote. 75% of the 30,732 voter applications denied for lack-of documentation were these DMV applicants.

Thirty-five states have enacted voter ID laws, typically passed by Republican-controlled legislatures under the pretense of combating voter fraud. Lawmakers concerns surrounding voter fraud are often that non-citizens or other ineligible persons are illegally casting votes and unfairly swaying elections. Election security is a legitimate concern, however, a study found only thirty-one credible cases of voter fraud nationwide since 2000, illustrating that it is exceedingly rare in this country, despite rhetoric suggesting otherwise.

The Upside

In a year plagued by attacks on voting rights, there have also been some reassuring developments. Floridians approved Amendment 4, a ballot measure that automatically restored voting rights for individuals convicted of a felony who have completed their sentences, a significant portion of which are African American. In Michigan, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure expanding voting rights: the “Promote the Vote” initiative provided for no-reason absentee voting, automatic registration, same-day registration, and reinstated straight-ticket voting. Voters in Maryland and Nevada approved ballot measures similar to Michigan’s.

Washington and New York each passed sweeping voting rights packages that vastly eased access to the vote, joining seventeen other states in implementing automatic voter registration. Washington approved of Election Day registration and pre-registration for 16-17-year-olds, while New York implemented early voting and pre-registration for teenagers. Further, New York consolidated its state and federal primaries into one Election Day, which is expected to increase voter turnout and decrease confusion. In all, twelve states have passed twenty bills expanding voting access in at least one chamber of their legislatures in 2018.

The Future of Voting Access

Recent shifts in voting access illustrate a clear divergence between two competing philosophies: one that expands voting rights and one that curtails them – and this division is increasingly partisan. As we enter 2019, this trend will continue until Congress passes an updated coverage formula for the Voting Rights Act that reinstates federal protections under the crucial preclearance clause. In the meantime, passing a national automatic voter registration law would remedy many of the problems apparent in the post-Shelby County environment, while simultaneously saving taxpayer money and boosting voter registration.   

Photo by Keith Ivey on Flickr


Katie Grover is a first year Master of Public Policy student at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford of Public Policy. She received her B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles.