Obstacles to Voting

by Megan Stevens


When dealing with a topic in history as complicated as race, it can be difficult to pin-point just one aspect to plan a lesson around. While intending to use the lesson in a, specifically, United States Government course helps narrow it down, there are still countless options. In selecting the theme for this lesson the goal was to simultaneously choose a topic that was relevant to American politics today as well as provide a breadth of information to best help students understand an important aspect of race in the American political sphere. In choosing to focus upon voter turnout amongst black citizens, the lesson is able to cover topics such as gerrymandering, voter identification laws, poll closures, and mass incarceration. 

While these components impact minority voters of many backgrounds, this lesson will focus specifically on black Americans for three reasons. The first is that, despite the fact that voter turnout for minorities is low in general, the specific factors chosen to explore are most commonly highlighted for their impact on black citizens in particular. The second is the history of voter suppression suffered by black Americans, particularly during the Jim Crow Era in the South. The last is simply the idea that, in order to best understand the topics being analyzed, it helps students to focus their attention on how these variables could impact people of a similar background rather than balance their impact on various different cultural and ethnic groups. The students will also be given background information on the topic in order to ground their interpretation of the sources. This background information can also serve helpful for those attempting to implement the lesson and therefore will be included in a similar fashion here. 

Prior to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many states—particularly in the South—incorporated laws preventing black Americans from exercising their right to vote. Policies such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses were employed with the intention of disenfranchising citizens of color. Voting is a powerful tool in a democratic republic. Enfranchisement allows for citizens to elect representatives that will have the power to pass legislation that could create positive change for and protect the constituencies they represent. These constituents, therefore, have a means through which to hold government officials accountable to their promises. Elections are a forceful means for citizens to have their voices heard on a regular basis.

Despite the undeniable progress America has seen since the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Twenty-Fourth Amendment—banning the practice of poll taxes—some barriers to voting still remain. Each of these barriers serves a different political purpose. Voter Identification Laws are passed as a means for promising protections against voter fraud. The idea behind this is that, if citizens are forced to present IDs at the polls, the likelihood that elections can be tampered with by improper voting practices can be tapered.1William D. Hicks, et al. “A Principle or a Strategy? Voter Identification Laws and Partisan Competition in the American States.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1, (2015): 23. Poll Closures come typically as a means of cutting costs or as a result of actions such as early voting and absentee ballots lowering demand for polling locations on election day.2Mark Nichols. “Closed Voting Sites Hit Minority Counties Harder for Busy Midterm Elections.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, (2018). Mass incarceration—or rather, the percentage of those incarcerated—comes from attempts by politicians to represent themselves as tough on crime. This is something that many voters deemed as a positive quality throughout the end of the twentieth century as well as the beginning of the twenty-first.3James Forman Jr. Locking Up Our Own. (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017): 7. Gerrymandering allows for politicians to ensure a higher likelihood of re-election for members of their party within their state—ideally guaranteeing their ability to hold the majority within their states’ legislature.

While not all of these barriers are employed to intentionally disenfranchise a portion of the population—as did the legislation of the Jim Crow era did—it is undeniable that these policies may have an adverse effect on black citizens. Throughout this lesson, students will explore how these different policies could create an environment in which it is more difficult for minority voters—specifically African Americans—to exercise their right to vote. Although this may be true, it is improper to see these circumstances as irreparable. Both through the actions of the people effected as well as the interventions of organizations—such as the ACLU—citizens have made sure to make their voices heard despite these barriers.

In addition to this, in situations where the rights of African Americans have been seen to have been violated by these policies, organizations—such as the ACLU and NAACP among many others—step in to pursue legal recourse and potentially have these policies overturned (typically in the courts).4Bertrall Ross. “PARTISAN GERRYMANDERING, THE FIRST AMENDMENT, AND THE POLITICAL OUTSIDER.” Columbia Law Review 118, no. 7 (2018): 2192. Federal courts have served as important ground to fight against potential disenfranchisement. Interest groups and advocacy organizations—such as the Sentencing Project—also serve as a tool to inform Americans of the potential outcomes causes by these barriers’ existence. Their websites offer statistics and articles that make this information more readily available to the public.5Kara Gotsch. “Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project, The Sentencing Project, (2018).


Forman, James Jr. Locking Up Our Own. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017.

Gotsch, Kara. “Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project, The Sentencing Project, 19 Apr. 2018, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/.

Hicks, William D., et al. “A Principle or a Strategy? Voter Identification Laws and Partisan Competition in the American States.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1, 2015,    pp. 18–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371969.

Nichols, Mark. “Closed Voting Sites Hit Minority Counties Harder for Busy Midterm Elections.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 31 Oct. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/10/30/midterm-elections-closed-voting-sites-impact-minority-voter-turnout/1774221002/.

Ross, Bertrall. “PARTISAN GERRYMANDERING, THE FIRST AMENDMENT, AND THE POLITICAL OUTSIDER.” Columbia Law Review 118, no. 7 (2018): 2187-218. www.jstor.org/stable/26524958.