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Civil rights movement

Voter Suppression

Voter suppression has become a white-hot issue during the recent US presidential election.

At his first election debate with Joe Biden, Trump said he “can’t go along” with a result tallied up from millions of mail-in ballots, which would mean “fraud like you’ve never seen before”. He called on his supporters to mobilise for a long struggle over the election results. And he confirmed he was expecting the Supreme Court to help invalidate countless legally-cast ballots.

Some see such criticism as a form of voter suppression in itself – an accusation that the Trump administration has denied, even as the outgoing President has doubled-down on his claims after his election loss.

Sadly, voter suppression remains very much a ‘live’ issue in a deeply divided America, and it casts a dark shadow over generations of American history, helping to keep the poorer and those in some minority communities from being able to fully participate in the democratic society in which they live.

HOW IT CAME TO THIS POINT

In 1787, when the Founding Fathers were looking at suffrage as they drew up what would become the U.S. Constitution, voting was restricted to wealthy white landowners. There was a debate over whether those commoners who had joined the American Revolution should also be given the vote.

In the end, the question was left to individual states, as written in Article I, Section 4, of the Constitution, which declared: 

“The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”

American University historian Allan Lichtman has written that this had “profound, lasting consequences for American democracy”. By not giving U.S. citizens an explicit constitutional right to vote, the Founding Fathers made sure that voting rights and citizenship were not necessarily automatic partners. If a state barred some citizens from voting, there was no recourse for appeal through to the federal government.

THE UGLY REALITY

After the Civil War, three amendments – the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, part of Congressional Reconstruction – were passed, designed to ensure equality for Black Americans in the South.The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery and indentured servitude. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, gave African Americans “equal protection under the laws.” However, it wasn’t until the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, that states were prohibited from “from disenfranchising voters ‘on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Tennessee was actually the last state to formally ratify the amendment, in 1997.

Voting rights were also denied for those convicted of crimes through felon disenfranchisement laws. In fact, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), only two states, Maine and Vermont, currently give everyone the uninhibited right to vote today. Three states still currently disenfranchise felons from voting permanently: Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia.

Southern states also previously enforced rules commonly known as the Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation in public places, particularly between white and Black Americans. ‘Poll taxes’ discouraged those who could not afford to pay from voting and were a prerequisite to register to vote in Jim Crow states. Such taxes disproportionately affected Black voters and continued in various states well into the 20th century (and still existed in several states until abolished in 1964).

Literacy tests were also brought in to stop people participating in the voting process. They were administered at the discretion of voter registration officials and often discriminated against Black Americans. Until 1915, those white men unable to pass the tests were permitted to vote because of a “Grandfather Clause”, meaning they could vote if their grandfathers voted had voted by 1867. Literacy tests were eventually outlawed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Before the Voting Rights Act came into force, the 19th Amendment was the first amendment that assured women the right to vote, stating, “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 sex.” 

However, when ratified 100 years ago, the 19th Amendment did not fully function as a guarantee for African American women. Many recorded later being turned away at polls.

GUTTING OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to end historical gerrymandering and voter suppression. In the decades after the Act was passed, the U.S. government took further action to ensure citizens’ right to vote, from protecting the rights of voters who didn’t speak English to making polling places more accessible to the elderly and people with disabilities. 

Yet voter suppression has become an increasing point of contention in the last two decades as state legislatures instituted new rules for running elections, and as federal oversight has been eroded. After (Democratic) President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Southern Democrats defected in great numbers to the Republican Party and the political parties realigned. 

In recent decades, Republican-led state legislatures nationwide have introduced a variety of new restrictions, which make it more difficult to cast a vote. Some require voters to first obtain identification or proof of citizenship; others purge inactive names from the rolls of registered voters; and still others have shortened early voting periods or limited access to absentee and mail-in voting.

A 2013 landmark Supreme Court decision – called Shelby v. Holder – ended the requirement that states and districts with a history of discrimination needed to get permission to make changes to voting requirements. Among these ‘preclearance states’ were Georgia, where then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, purged over 300,000 voters in 2017. A year later, Kemp became governor. His margin of victory was 54,000 votes.

Beyond the wholesale purges of registration rolls, voter ID laws have been easily manipulated to target young voters and people of colour. Texas has one of the most restrictive policies, for example, where a state-issued college ID is not valid, but a state-issued gun license is allowed.

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought about monumental change for Black Americans, culminating with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Andrew Young, a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and later became ambassador to the United Nations, marched in the protests between Selma, Alabama, and the state capital of Montgomery:

“We were willing to die because we knew this country needed the Voting Rights Act to empower each and every citizen to express the will of the people,”

Since the passing of the Voting Rights Act, he said Black Americans’ ability to vote, particularly in the South, had come under attack again.“These have taken many forms in recent years, including voter suppression laws, felony disenfranchisement and also the purging of voter rolls,” Williams said.

“Many would argue today that it is still precarious for African Americans to be able to exercise the right to vote ... because of some of the irregularities and political chicanery that still goes on at the polls.”