Civil rights advocates protesting against discriminatory voting laws in 1964.
BY JENNIFER GAMBLE THEARD, ASALH Historian
For more than 100 years, the Supreme Court defined voting as a fundamental political right. Yet during the 21st century, it has instituted legal barriers in the form of restrictive voting laws.
Within a time span of 10 years, there has been a concerted effort to suppress the votes of minority citizens in the United States. A variety of new laws and governmental practices are on the books that make it harder for people of color to have a voice in the outcome of government decisions that affect their lives and future.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark legislation that was signed into law during the time Civil Rights Movement. This law aimed to eliminate various discriminatory voting practices that had traditionally prevented African Americans from voting.
More than 50 years later, the U. S. Supreme Court gave a damaging blow to democracy. In 2013, the highest court in the United States overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. It then allowed nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws.
By a five to four vote, the Supreme Court justices decided that minorities no longer continue to face barriers in voting, especially in states with a history of discrimination. They agreed that states and local municipalities no longer needed federal government oversight regarding how to arrange their voting procedures.
The majority vote of the court ruled that Congress would make changes if and when it may be necessary regarding U.S. citizens’ right to vote. Because of that particular judicial decision from five years ago, various voting barriers have evolved that have put black and brown voters in the back of the line again or even out of the line.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granted African Americans the right to vote. Yet, in the late 1800s and 1900s, obstruction to voting had the face of Jim Crow, and at times obstruction was laced with physical violence.
Then there were poll taxes when poor people who could not pay to vote were barred from the polls, and of course, literacy tests that uneducated black or poor people could not pass, eliminated their right to vote.
“We’re now fighting James S. Crow, Jr. Esquire,” said civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton. “He talks in a more refined way…but the result is the same.”
U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver stated: “The poll tax was $3.50 to discourage blacks from voting. Now it’s been replaced by a $22 fee for a birth certificate needed to get a government-issued photo ID.”
When the last census in 2010 showed the population of nonwhites increasing, various conservative state lawmakers began to react with coordinated measures to push back on the rising tide of potential voters who could disrupt the status of those in power.
As a result, there are now presently new laws in about 18 states that make it difficult or almost impossible for millions of would-be-voters to cast a ballot. Those who are pushed out are disproportionately African Americans, Latinos, young voters, new immigrants, low-wage earners, people with disabilities and senior citizens.
The result of blocking so many potential voters is a legal inequality that strikes at hope and dignity. It is an extreme form of social exclusion that could cause isolation and separatism.
Citizens can lose faith and trust in government, which could result in unwanted leaders providing poor leadership. A lack of citizen participation would become the opposite of vibrant interaction within a thriving and healthy democracy.
Several states have legal challenges regarding voter suppression or problematic voter purge. For example, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina and Minnesota must restructure their photo identification laws or bills that suggest undue burdens on voters or systemic disenfranchisement/deprivation of voting.
In Arizona and Tennessee, there is a racially discriminatory impact of literacy and proof of citizenship. Florida is one of the states that strip those with past felony convictions of their voting rights for life. This ban dates back to the Reconstruction period and historically was targeted at crimes thought to be committed by African Americans.
Today, nearly one in four black men in Florida cannot vote because of this system. The only way to restore one’s civil rights in Florida is through clemency from the governor, which is a burdensome and arbitrary process.
There will be a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Nov. for voters to decide whether to make it easier for felons to regain voting rights.
Many of today’s elections are being steered by big money, special interest groups, executive orders, and or administrative practices. Organizations with money, power and inside connections can tilt the outcome of the ballot.
Upper-income bias of American voter turnout tends to produce election results favorable to the wealthy and businesses, not to the practical needs of the people or the country.
As big money begins to control more government activities, lawmakers will manipulate boundaries (gerrymandering) of groups of voters and supporters in a specific area who will vote for a particular politician–who may be the opposite of good for the whole.
But, the best way to overcome the economically stratified electorate/group of supporters for a representative is that ordinary people of like interest and informed minds get out and VOTE in large numbers. Tell your family, friends, churches, organizations, neighbors, colleagues.
In the words of former Attorney General Eric Holder at a speech on voting rights: “For all Americans, protecting this right, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative.”