Indirect Barriers to Voting

What is an indirect barrier?

An indirect barrier also significantly impacts one’s ability to do something, but could be less obvious than a direct barrier and more expansive. These barriers are often structural and rooted in systems that have been in place since the founding of the United States. As a result, it is sometimes more difficult for those affected by indirect barriers to figure out how to overcome or fix them.


What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."
Excerpt from “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander


Nekima Levy-Pounds, law professor and President of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is an African-American civil rights organization in the United States, formed in 1909 by Moorfield Storey, Mary White Ovington and W. E. B. Du Bois, describes in a panel at the Minneapolis Foundation’s Futurist Conference the ways in which communities of color are often cast aside in voter mobilization efforts due to a prevailing racist assumption that they lack desire to make change in their communities.

According to a report done by CIRCLE, many African American youth are “under-mobilized” when it comes to civic engagement, meaning their communities haven’t been reached by efforts to engage youth in the democratic process in the same way that white communities have.

She also highlights the ways in which African American communities have been disenfranchised by a criminal justice system that has failed them, and has in turn left them stripped of social, economic and political power.

The Future of Civic Engagement

Watch Nekima Levy-Pounds deliver her speech as part of "The Future of Civic Engagement" panel at Minneapolis Foundation's Face Forward, Futurist Conference in 2015.

Set to Fail from the Start: School-to-Prison Pipeline and the Opportunity Gap

Black students are disproportionately impacted by what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline."

Due to gross structural inequities in the U.S. public school system - including inadequate education resources, harsh disciplinary policies and policing of under-resourced schools - a high percentage of marginalized youth are put on a pathway out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

The pipeline is directly connected to the opportunity gap distinct from the “achievement gap” which is a common term in education that refers to the difference in achievement measures between two demographic student groups. Usually, this refers to the difference between white students and students of color. While the achievement gap tends to unfairly place fault on the student, the opportunity gap focuses on the gap in access to equitable education, or in the opportunity to succeed in American education.

The opportunity gap exists because students from marginalized communities, including African American students, have only a 51% opportunity to learn in comparison with their white peers, according to Schott Foundation’s Opportunity to Learn Index.

Structural Inequities Contribute to the Gap

A study done by the U.S. Department of Education that analyzed racial inequity in schools during the 2011-12 school year produced the following findings:

  1. Black students accounted for 18 percent of the country’s pre-K enrollment, but made up 48 percent of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions.
  2. Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students.
  3. Black girls were suspended at higher rates than all other girls and most boys.
  4. With the exception of Latino and API, nearly one in four boys of color with disabilities received an out-of-school suspension.
  5. One in five girls of color with disabilities received an out-of-school suspension.
  6. A quarter of the schools with the highest percentage of Black and Latinx students did not offer Algebra II.
  7. One third of these schools did not offer chemistry.
  8. Black and Latinx students accounted for 40 percent of enrollment at schools with gifted programs, but only represented 26 percent of students in such programs.
  9. Black, Latinx and American Indian students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers (3 to 4 percent) than white students (1 percent).
  10. Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.

As a result of these and other inequities in opportunity, dropout rates are much higher with students of color than with white students, and much higher among low income families than middle to higher income families.

In Minnesota, the opportunity gap is evidenced by a blatant disparity in graduation rates: 66.6% for Black males and 89.7% for white males.

Black Girls and the Opportunity Gap

Studies also indicate that the factors contributing to the prison pipeline and opportunity gap have a disproportionate impact on young Black girls.

Schools with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and police-like security systems, which often unequally target African American youth, contribute to detachment and lack of feelings of safety in what should be an environment focused on education.

This is a leading factor in the school-to-prison pipeline that pushes Black girls out of the education system. In many cases, discipline is favored over counseling, rendering invisible personal traumas or life situations that could be acting as barriers to girls’ academic success.

Here we are, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the data altogether still show a picture of gross inequity in educational opportunity."
Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project


In 30 years of data, there is no year in which low-income voter turnout is higher than high-income voter turnout. Furthermore, low-income and marginalized community members are often less likely to vote because they’ve been shut out of the system from the beginning.

In states with voter I.D. laws in place, poverty can also become a direct barrier, since photo I.D.s are significantly less accessible to low-income people, especially low-income people of color.

Barriers of structural racism such as these create an even deeper divide between African American communities and the types of freedom and political power supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.