As the United States faces a national reckoning over race relations and gears up for a presidential election in less than one week, Black Americans still encounter systemic barriers to equally exercising their right to vote. These hurdles to the ballot box for Black and minority voters have been exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic but racial inequalities in elections have existed long before the virus.


Plots to suppress the African American vote date back to the Reconstruction Era. While the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” it was essentially ignored for the following century. Prior to the Voter Rights Act of 1965, there were numerous tactics used to keep Black people from voting such as: violence, literacy tests, poll taxes, fraud, and more. 

For example, laws put in place after the Reconstruction Era were deliberately used to prevent black citizens from registering to vote and voting. White supremacist paramilitary organizations, allied with Southern Democrats, used intimidation, violence, and committed assassinations in order to repress the Black vote. Racial gerrymandering still occurs today as a means of suppressing the Black vote. 


The challenge to voting rights has continued into the 21st century, as shown by numerous cases and accounts of Black voters being restricted and punished for enacting their voting rights. The following are some of the most common tactics used today to keep Black people from voting:


Black voters are often punished for voting if they are on probation or have a felony record. Black people are disproportionately incarcerated and are therefore more susceptible to strict voting while on probation or parole laws. Probation terms are unfair and strenuous and many times voters are not made aware that they are ineligible to vote.


It is also far more difficult for members of minority communities to be able to locate polling places on Election Day. Minorities tend to have a lower voter turnout compared to whites and, in many cases, this has resulted in discriminatory polling place distributions and polling place closures. Discrepancies in wait times at polling places in communities of color are far higher than in white communities, which can deter minority voters from voting.


As mentioned above, redistricting, or gerrymandering, is the practice of manipulating district boundaries in order to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group. Political groups often benefit from packing certain voters into districts, making other districts safer for their candidates. This can often diminish the political power of minority voters.


There are significant old and new state laws that have made it harder for many Black and minority voters to cast their ballot. The following restrictions disproportionately affect Black voters:

  • Restricting early voting, according to the ACLU, is a form of voter suppression. When people are only able to vote on Election Day, this potentially disenfranchises shift workers or those unable to get time off of work, or who are unable to wait in long lines at a polling place. In 2012, Black voters in Ohio voted at more than 2x the rate of white voters, and 70 percent of Black voters in North Carolina voted early in 2008 and 2012.

  • Voter ID laws, which require a specific time of government-issued identification, can reduce voter registration and turnout. This can impact people in rural communities, for whom driving potentially hours to procure an ID, as well as voters for whom English is a second language. 

  • Voter list maintenance is required by federal law and the intention is to save states time and money so that poll workers don’t have to sift through long and inaccurate lists (for example, when someone moves or dies, they would be removed from the list). According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, two groups are disproportionately negatively affected when maintenance is mismanaged: Black and brown communities and young people. 

African American voting rights is a fraught issue in United States history that, unfortunately, is still an issue today. While methods used to disenfranchise Black voters have shifted and changed in the last century, we still have much progress to make to ensure that all Americans’ voices are heard in future elections. 

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