Teaching the Truth About Voter Suppression

It’s a common misconception that the only thing stopping people from voting is laziness. But voter suppression is real, and your students need to understand how it happens.
Bookmarked 42 times
Photography by Boston Globe/Getty Images

Only about 40 percent of eligible voters turn out during midterm elections. 

While this statistic is an important one to share with students, it’s also important that we talk to them about why this is the case. Certainly, many people who don’t vote are swayed by common myths about voting—that their vote doesn’t matter, for example, or that local elections aren’t relevant to their lives. But these aren’t the only reasons people don’t vote.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the fall of 2018, before the midterm elections. It has since been updated.

For some folks today, there is a lot standing between them and the polls. When we write off all non-voters as lazy or unengaged, we ignore the impact of voter suppression. Instead of pretending that voting is equally easy for everyone, we should explain to students how voter suppression happens and how it affects election outcomes. We should also explain why it happens: Voter suppression consolidates power for those who have it. It’s a way of rigging the system to ensure that those in power remain in power. 

When we teach students about voter suppression—in the past and the present—we show them why they need to get involved. Voting and encouraging others to vote aren’t just “civic duties”—they’re opportunities for all of our students to help make our electoral systems more just and equitable.

Voting Ease Checklist

One way to get familiar with the inequities that influence voting is to consider how your own experience compares to that of others. Read through the “voting ease checklist” below; the more statements that apply to you, the easier it is for you to register and vote.

  • I have been asked to register to vote.
  • My state has automatic voter registration.
  • My state has online voter registration.
  • My state doesn’t require excessive documentation to register to vote.
  • It was easy for my grandparents to vote in my state.
  • As a child, I accompanied my parent to vote.
  • I have reliable transportation to my polling place.
  • I’ve never been told I wasn’t on the voting rolls when I’ve gone to vote.
  • My state has same-day voter registration.
  • I have never had to get an ID issued specifically for the purpose of voting.
  • My state offers opportunities to vote early.
  • My state offers opportunities for absentee voting or voting by mail.
  • I voted in the first election in which I was eligible.
  • I can take time off work to vote.
  • I’m not disqualified from voting because of my citizenship status.
  • I’m not disqualified from voting because I was convicted of a crime.

With an election fast approaching, now is a perfect time to talk with your students about the reality of voting in the United States. Teaching the truth about voter suppression, encouraging students to think locally and offering opportunities for them to get family and community members involved are all ways to present students with a more nuanced understanding of voting rights today.

1. Teach the truth about common techniques of voter suppression. 

Sharing real-life examples can help students consider how these techniques can discourage voting and how they can affect some voters more than others.

Closing Polling Places

Push students to consider why fewer polling places result in lower voter turnout. Encourage them to consider voters with certain kinds of disabilities, who may not be able to wait in the poll lines for extended amounts of time. Ask them to think about transportation, lines and time away from work to understand how fewer polling places might affect some communities more than others.

Purging Voter Registration Rolls

While a lot of voter education focuses on registration, there are fewer pushes to encourage registered voters to ensure their registration remains valid. Sharing some statistics and stories about voter purges is one way to illustrate the idea that the right to vote, once obtained, must still be fought for. 

  • Between 2014 and 2016, almost 16 million voters were removed from the rolls, often without public announcements.
  • In 2018, Georgia’s secretary of state implemented a new “exact match” policy that put 53,000 voter registration applications on hold—jeopardizing their opportunity to vote in November. Three facts will help students see the connection between voter purges and voter suppression:
    • Seventy percent of the “on hold” applications were from African Americans. (Overall, 30 percent of Georgians identify as Black.)
    • That year, the first Black woman to run for governor as a major party candidate was on the ballot in Georgia.
    • The secretary of state who implemented this policy was her opponent in the race.

Implementing Voter ID Laws

Voter ID laws can be a contentious issue, but you can provide information that can help students easily recognize how these laws target particular communities: 

  • In states with strict voter ID laws, the gap between white and Latinx voter turnout is doubled. The gap between white and Black voter turnout is nearly doubled.
  • In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case out of North Dakota about a law requiring voters to show proof of their residential address in order to cast a ballot in the midterms. This law disenfranchises many Native American populations in the state, since rural Native communities have P.O. boxes instead of residential addresses for U.S. Postal Service deliveries.

Restoration of Voting Rights for Returning Citizens

Talking to students about restoring the right to vote to those who have been incarcerated offers them a way to track voting rights in real time. 

  • If you discuss this issue before November’s election, students can watch how voters in California decide voting rights restoration in their state. Proposition 17 will allow people with felony convictions, including those on parole, to vote when they are released from incarceration.
  • Twelve states have laws restricting voting rights for people who have completed their sentences, probations and paroles. People with felony convictions in these 12 states make up more than 50 percent of all disenfranchised people in the United States.

2. Help students think locally.

Check Voting Rights in Your State

Since voting policies—registration, early and absentee voting and restoration rights—vary greatly from state to state, you can check voting access in your state with students. Use this Rock the Vote resource to see where your state stands on citizens’ rights. Or try this resource from The Washington Post to easily compare your state to others. 

Teach Voting Myths

Instead of merely providing students with facts about the process and history of voting in the United States, try the “Vote With Your Feet” activity in “The Truth About Voting.” This Democracy Class lesson asks students to think about some common voting myths. Students work in groups and move around the classroom, thinking and talking through some of the most common misconceptions about voting.

Encourage Students to Do Something 

Our “Do Something” projects let students get involved. Try having students conduct some local research on what to expect at the polls and compile what they’ve learned in a handy voter’s guide for upcoming elections. Or have them use online resources to analyze local voter registration and turnout rates and learn more about suppressive laws in their state and local communities.

3. Get families involved. 

Take the Pledge

Everyone can participate in our democracy, regardless of voter eligibility. Use and share this pledge to encourage your students and their families to use their voices and their votes.

Share our resources

Introduce the pledge to younger students with our story and video “Having the Talk,” and to older students with a message from the students of March for Our Lives: “Apathy is not an option.

The fight for voting rights is far from over. 

Teaching your students about these effects of these laws will provide them with a better understanding of the need for civic engagement and for change in our electoral systems. By encouraging students to recognize and fight against voter suppression, you not only help them let their voices be heard—you also show them the power of using their voices to amplify others’.

Malley is the editorial assistant for Teaching Tolerance.

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More