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Voter suppression tops Black women’s concerns about democracy

For Black women, the Voting Rights Amendment is essential for democracy.

Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Black women leaders on voting rights, July 16, 2021, (cc) White House /Lawrence Jackson, via Flickr.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump claim that the stakes are high for American democracy. Earlier this year, President Biden chided Trump, saying that “he’s willing to sacrifice democracy to put himself in power.” Former President Trump responded by stating, “if we do not win this election, I don’t think you’re going to have another election in this country.” 

The rhetoric from Biden and Trump exemplifies the feelings of the 62% of Americans who say that democracy could be at risk depending on who wins the 2024 presidential election. Polls indicate that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that the future of American democracy rests on November’s election. 

Black women – a bloc of reliable Democratic voters – have a different underlying fear. We find that Black women, particularly older Black women, view voter suppression as the primary threat to elections in the United States. We also find that compared to other race-gender groups, a plurality of Black women view the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) protections as essential. 

Given this historical context and today’s manifestations of Black voter suppression, our findings indicate that Black women – more than any other demographic group who believe democracy is under threat – are most fearful of encroachments on the VRA. As America’s most consistent voters, Black women participate in democracy but have concerns about its future. 

How we conducted our research 

We surveyed 2,284 Black women voters leading up to the 2022 midterm election in March 2022. We used a Qualtrics online survey panel, an opt-in survey community. Qualtrics uses its internal targeting to send targeted email invites to the requested sample, which in this study was a nationally representative sample of self-identified Black women. Our sample was evenly balanced on regional variables to ensure that we didn’t have an oversample of Black women from the South – where America’s Black population is geographically concentrated.

To understand Black women’s concerns about democracy, we asked “What is the greatest threat towards elections in the United States?” Potential responses include foreign interference, voter tampering by local officials, vote tampering by political parties, voter fraud, voter suppression, and “unsure.” 

To understand how Black women’s support of the VRA compares to others, we looked at the 2020 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Study (CMPS), which was conducted by researchers at UCLA, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Maryland. The CMPS includes a large sample of African American, Latino, White American, and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters and nonvoters. Over half of the CMPS 17,000 respondents are women, and the survey asks a range of political and social items, including the necessity of the VRA. 

To understand support for the VRA, we asked, “As you may know, the Voting Rights Act was passed in the 1965s to prevent state and local governments from using rules and procedures that prevented many Black people from voting. Do you think the Voting Rights Act is necessary today to make sure that Blacks are allowed to vote, or do you think the Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary?” Potential responses include necessary today, no longer necessary, don’t know, or refused to answer. 

What is the VRA?

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was signed into law in 1965 by Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson as part of the watershed legislation on civil rights. This law upheld the 15th Amendment, which technically granted universal male suffrage by giving Black men the right to vote in 1870, but it was not enforced. Black women did not gain the right to vote through the 15th Amendment, nor did they gain voting rights with the 19th Amendment, which granted women’s suffrage. 

Only after the VRA could Black Americans vote. The VRA outlawed restrictive voting practices and laws such as literacy tests and the grandfather clause, which prohibited Black Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court deemed the preclearance formula unconstitutional, eliminating protections for minority voters. This ruling then led to several states passing new laws that restrict voting access.

What do Black women view as a threat to democracy? 

According to 32% of Black women in our survey, voter suppression is a primary threat to elections. These concerns are even more pronounced among older Black women. Over 59% of Black women in the postwar generation (those born before 1943) view voter suppression as a principal threat to democracy. Overall, the majority of Black women view voting rights, not voter fraud, as a primary threat to democracy. 

About 24% of younger Black women, both Gen Z (born from 1997-2004) and Millenials (1981-1996), also ranked voter suppression as their top concern, but to a lesser degree than their postwar and Boomer counterparts. Nearly 43% of Black women who are Boomers (1944 – 1965) view voter suppression as a primary threat. Respondents in the Gen Z, Millennials, and Boomer groups saw vote tampering by political parties as the next biggest threat to democracy. 

According to a 2020 HarrisX/Hill poll, 27% of all registered voters viewed voter fraud as a primary threat to democracy. In our study, only 16% view voter fraud as a primary threat. Among Millennial Black women in our study, 20% view voter fraud as a threat to democracy, which is more than other age cohorts. 

Black women’s concerns about voter fraud may have more to do with voter fraud allegations towards Black voters specifically. In a decision that has since been overturned, a Texas judge sentenced Crystal Mason to five years in prison for voter fraud. Similarly, in 2015, Pamela Moses in Tennessee was sentenced to six years for registering voters. 

Why Black women are concerned about the VRA

Historian Elsa Barkley Brown’s research documents that Black women have a long tradition of leveraging the vote for community betterment. Following the ratification of the 15th Amendment and Black men’s right to vote, Black women were concerned (and aware that) Black men may use the vote for the betterment of themselves and use it in pursuit of individual self-interest. Yet, both Black men and women saw male suffrage as a collective enterprise for the race. Although Black women could not vote, they developed strategies to advance their political interests through the vote of Black men. 

During the nadir of Black politics and throughout the Jim Crow era, Black women activists like Mary Church Terrell were engaged in racial uplift and women’s suffrage movements. They fought against Black male disenfranchisement and for Black women’s voting rights. Black men and women’s civil rights are tied to voting rights; the two are inseparable. Advocacy for racial and gender justice through suffrage has been a goal of Black women who faced unequal treatment by White women and Black men. As such, Black women viewed access to the ballot as a way to promote social justice, gender equity, and human rights – and end racial discrimination.

Fast-forward to today. Our research finds that Black women’s unique history in the United States leads them to have different perspectives on the importance of voting. The historical legacies of disenfranchisement continue to shape how Black women view suffrage. Their pro-democracy stance rests on an understanding that the issues that most impact Black women’s lives are on the ballot

Is the VRA still necessary?

Our data demonstrate that Black Americans, and Black women, specifically, believe the VRA is still necessary today. So how do these data compare to those of other surveys? In the 2020 Collaborative Multiracial Post Election Survey (CMPS), over 70% of Black women say the VRA is necessary. In that survey, Black women are the strongest proponents of that view; only 56% of Black men say the VRA is necessary. Differences in Black gendered public opinion and other historical factors likely account for this gap. 

The CMPS reveals a plurality of Americans assert that the VRA remains necessary. Second to Black Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are most supportive of the VRA, followed by Latinos. White men and women are the least supportive of the VRA. Research suggests that limited access to voting affects different groups in different ways. Even though Black women are most supportive of voting rights, an intersectional take on this issue might explain gaps among and within other disenfranchised groups. 

Implications of our research

A February 2024 IPSOS poll finds that citizens are concerned about political extremism and threats to democracy. Our research shows that for Black women, however, decreased opportunities to influence democracy and representation via the ballot is the top threat. Of course, Black women are concerned about extremism and other political issues, but limiting access to suffrage is a chief obstacle in their minds.

Here lies the conundrum. Black women remain the saviors of democracy. Black women know firsthand that their vote has the power to change electoral outcomes. Still, Black women are the group that’s most concerned about voter suppression. 

Nadia E. Brown is a professor of government and chair of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University. She was a contributor to the 2020 CMPS

Christine M. Slaughter is an assistant professor of political science at Boston University. She was a contributor to the 2020 CMPS

The study of Black women was funded by the Idol Family Fellowship Program in the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.