Voter Suppression throughout American History and Solutions thereof
Origins and My Interest
Throughout the history of the United States, there have always been people with unorthodox political views; however, the promise of a democratic republic cannot be fulfilled while these minorities are suppressed at the ballot. Voter suppression has taken many forms in the country’s history, from gerrymandering to laws oppressing minorities. For example, during the post-Reconstruction era, Louisiana implemented a “Grandfather clause”, which stopped freedmen and descendants thereof from voting. As a result, “black voter numbers dropped from more than 44 percent in 1896 to a mere 4 percent four years later” (Caffrey).
While voter suppression has been mostly race and gender based, it also affects those diverting from mainstream political ideology. The United States claims to be a democracy, but it cannot fulfill that promise while misrepresenting its citizens, keeping them from the voting booth, the foundation of the country.
You can also look at my full interest essay if you would like.
A History of Voter Suppresion
During the Reconstruction era, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, prohibiting the denial of voting rights based on race. State governments tried to fight back, appealing to states’ rights. While states could no longer make laws to prohibit African-Americans from voting, they found workarounds that had the same effect, one of the most prominent examples being the literacy test. Voters not registered before 1866 were required to prove their literacy in order to be registered (take a look at a sample literacy test here). Before 1866, African-Americans were not registered to vote due to slavery, and it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, so a almost all freedmen were illiterate. The result was a very effective measure that suppressed African American votes. However, others claimed that it wasn’t the literacy test, but the poll tax, that kept African-American voters from the ballot (Ohl). Regardless of which measure was the most effective, it is obvious that African-American voters were suppressed in the post-Reconstruction era and throughout the Jim Crow Era.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. The NAACP, an organization made to fight for the rights of African Americans, tried to achieve legal victories. Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP fought to end educational segregation in the 1940s, resulting in the Supreme Court banning educational segregation in the case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. However, segregation continued through the 1960s. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., among other civil rights activists, provoked a law enforcement attack in an effort to create change. In reaction, President John F. Kennedy made a statement that he would make a bill for civil rights and send it to congress. However, congress made little progress in Kennedy’s presidency. Then, Lyndon B. Johnson took over, as a result of Kennedy’s assassination. President Johnson managed to pass the act in 1964 after a five-hundred and 534 filibuster. A year later, the Civil Rights Act was followed by another act: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
You can take a look at my essay on the history of voter suppression if you are interested in learning more about it.
A Brief Summary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
The act, written by Nicholas Katzenbach, was very thorough in design. Section 2 of the act states that no qualification or requisite was allowed to block voters on the basis of race. The process of enforcement starts with the Attorney General. Then, federal examiners are sent to ensure to sent confirm that race-based voter suppression is actually occurring. The Supreme Court has the ability to override the decision of the examiners; however, if it is determined that race-based voter suppression occurred, all unacceptable measures in usemust be removed and preclearance is activated. Preclearance, the common name of section 5 of the VRA, says that covered areas cannot institute new policies, measures, or requisites for voting without the approval of the Attorney General and DC district court, with appeals going to the Supreme Court.
Voter Suppression in the Modern Day
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a major step in solving the issue of voter suppression, but this grave injustice made a return in the early 21st century. By 2008 it had seemed like voter suppression had ended. African American voter turnout was at a ground-breaking 65%, competing with white voter turnout at 66% (as cited in Lieberman). However, states soon began passed laws targeting racial groups. One of the most common kinds of laws passed were voter ID laws, which claim to reduce voter fraud. However, almost all of these laws fail to do so (as cited in Lieberman). In 2019, 36 states had voter ID laws, and ten of them are strict (Underhill). Strict voter ID laws say that if the voter doesn’t have a valid ID, “they may vote a provisional ballot… but have to return to the polls within a few days to prove their identity” (Brennan Center). Voter ID laws inhibit certain voters come election day, especially African American and Latinx voters (Lieberman). On a national level, a fourth of African American voters didn’t have a “state-issued photo ID,” which is required by many voter ID laws (Lieberman). One voter “recounted a two-day, fourteen-hour ordeal to get a state ID” (as cited in Lieberman). This is an unreasonable amount of time needed to be able to vote, a right that is supposed to be guaranteed for all citizens. Looking at the statistics, it is painfully clear that Voter ID laws disproportionately affect racial minorities. The laws that are supposed to defend the ballots against voter fraud are just another form of voter suppression.
Efforts to Solve Voter Suppression
While Voter ID laws certainly suppressed voters by race, another blow to voting rights came in 2013. The Shelby County v. Holder case led to the invalidation of the preclearance portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The decision said that that preclearance was no longer necessary, so preclearance was invalidated until a new formula replaced the one defined in section 4b of the VRA. In response, there have been efforts to pass Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which the House of Representatives voted passed in December of 2019. The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 (VRAA) replaces section 4b of the VRAm with the most notable change to the formula being that it looks at the past 25 years rolling period for determining if voter suppression occurred. On the other hand, the original VRA looked at measures still in practice on November 1st, 1964. Therefore, the VRAA would bring back preclearance. Additionally, the VRAA changes the coverage detailed in the VRA to last for 10 years if there is repeated and lasting voter suppression and states can come out of coverage if they maintain a clean record. However, the Democrats, who pushed this act through the House, argued that new measures have been taken since the time of the Shelby County decision, making preclearance necessary again. On the other hand, Republicans argued for states’ rights. They argued that preclearance could be abused by the federal government. While the last update to the VRA was unanimously passed in the Senate, the House of Representatives vote on the VRAA was almost completely bipartisan. Only one Republican switched over and voted for the act. Therefore, it is unlikely that this act will come to pass when the current Senate votes on it. You can keep up to date with the act at the Congress website.
One organization that works to preserve voting rights is the Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center “that works to reform, revitalize, and when necessary, defend our country’s systems of democracy and justice” (Brennan Center). One of the organization’s many focuses is fighting voter suppression. They attempt to create change by informing, using reports and explanations of key court cases. While many are canceled due to quarantine, the Brennan Center hosts regular events in New York and Washington, D.C., attempting to bring attention to the issues in the United States “democracy”. They have even managed to do some major legal reform, an example being Automatic Voter Registration (AVR). Essentially, all people eligible to vote are registered when they “interact with designated government agencies” unless they request otherwise (Brennan Center). This makes registering to vote incredibly more convenient and eliminates voter suppression through registration laws, as shown by the increase in voter registration after these laws were implemented. Georgia, for example, experienced a 93.7% increase in voter registration (Brennan Center). Automatic Voter Registration goes back to 2015, when Oregon passed a law stating that anybody who renews their driver’s license or state ID is automatically registered for voting (Clinton). Now, 16 states and the District of Columbia have AVR laws. You can learn more about AVR in the Brennan Center’s summary or their more detailed report on the impact of Automatic Voter Registration.
What you can do
While government action is important for change, there are still things that individuals can do help combat voter suppression. One way you can take action is to petition your district representatives for the state legislature to pass Automatic Voter Registration. I live in California, which already has AVR. However, it only covers the DMV, meaning that voters will only be automatically registered upon interaction with the Department of Motor Vehicles . So, I am petitioning the state legislature to automatically register voters when they interact with other government agencies, such as social services, that they can deem trustworthy to get voter information. I also plan to go to a rally for voting rights once quarantine is lifted. While action can be taken, it is equally, if not more, important to spread information about voter suppression. For example, voter ID laws seem like a good way to avoid voter fraud at first glance; however, it is only by looking at the statistics and realizing the intent behind them that it is clear that voter ID laws are a form of race-based voter suppression. By informing people, we can help ensure that racism in the ballot box is suppressed. The internet is the catalyst for change, but correct information and good intentions are the necessary reactants to yield a world in which all can vote.
If you would like to learn more, you can view my essay on modern voter suppression and solutions thereof.
Were you aware nature of modern voter suppression beforehand? If not, did I change your thinking? If you did, did you learn anything new about voter suppression?
Please let me know in the comment section below