Understanding Voter Suppression: Why Your Vote Matters

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Understanding Voter Suppression: Why Your Vote Matters

The Presidential Election is now just a few weeks away and like many people, I find myself growing concerned about the ever-mounting presence of one topic: voter suppression.

Voter Suppression is defined as any effort, legal or illegal, to prevent eligible voters from registering to vote or casting their ballot in an election. New laws and/or administration rules that create barriers for voters are both examples of voter suppression.

This is arguably one of the United States’ most important elections. I personally feel that this moment could define my generation (hi millennials). A lot is at stake, and with the country continuing to move through a global pandemic, there are many concerns about exactly how votes will be counted this year.

For those of us who have studied history—specifically American history—we are no stranger to the idea of American voters being disenfranchised. For centuries, those in power in the United States have excluded certain people from voting based on things like race, gender, literacy, wealth and more. Most of these inhuman policies and treatments were not corrected until the passage of the Voting Rights of 1965.

Isn’t this 2020? Why and how are we still dealing with voter suppression in the United States? What does it look like? And most importantly, how can we combat it? To answer these questions, let’s first start with a little context.

Voting Rights in America

The United States of America was founded in 1776 on the basic principles of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet we know that the Founding Fathers were mostly concerned with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for an America full of people who looked like them—wealthy, white, and male. This sentiment is reflected in the way voting was structured at this time. Many customs from England were adopted, including the idea that only “free holding” men could vote (meaning they owned property and paid taxes). The first voters in colonial America were male property owners ages 21 and older—they were overwhelmingly white and Christian.

The result? When the first U.S. election was held in 1789 to elect President George Washington, only 6% of Americans were eligible to vote. In that same year, the Constitution granted power to the states to determine their own set of voting requirements. Many states upheld the property requirement for white males. They also passed laws limiting voting rights for African Americans and immigrants after the passage of the Naturalization Act in 1790. In the 1820s, universal white male suffrage prompted most states to forgo the property ownership rules, opening the vote up to all white men in the United States.

African American men were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Women and other minorities would have to wait for their suffrage.

The Jim Crow Era

The Jim Crow era is the time period in American history where state and local laws were passed that enforced racial segregation and disenfranchised thousands of African Americans in the southern United States. The threat of racial violence from terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan also had an impact, discouraging many African Americans from exercising their constitutional right.

Jim Crow laws began appearing in the 1870s, a result of the failure of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Many of the Jim Crow laws specifically targeted African American voting rights. Two examples of these racist and oppressive laws were literacy tests and poll taxes.

Literacy tests began popping up in the U.S. as early as the 1850s and were predominately used as a voter suppression tactic to disenfranchise African Americans and other minority voters. Literacy tests existed in the U.S. until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A payment of a poll tax was also required to register to vote in many states until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

While these voter suppression tactics largely targeted African Americans in the Jim Crow South, many other minorities in the United States were subjected to these types of unjust laws—such as Native Americans, Asian Americans, immigrants and women—until the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Above: United States President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 5, 1965

The Voting Rights Act

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were monumental in securing rights Americans deserved. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was expanded in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006—extending more voting protections each time. This resulted in many states seeing increased African American representation in elected officials. For example, the ACLU found that the number of Black elected officials in Georgia grew from 3 prior to the Voting Rights Act to 495 in 1990.

So, what happened? The Voting Rights Act was widely supported in the United States by multiple Presidents of both political parties. In fact, all 4 Presidents who signed expansions of the VRA were Republicans—Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush. Yet since 2006, voting rights have been attacked across the country along with the introduction of new methods of voter suppression. For example, the Brennan Center for Justice found that 25 states enforced new voting requirements in 2010 such as voter ID laws, closing polling places and cutbacks to early voting.

In 2013, the Voting Rights Act was attacked again with the U.S. Supreme Court Case Shelby County v. Holder. In a 5-4 decision, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In response to the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Voting Rights Act was based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices… such as [literary] tests” and that they “have banned nationwide for over 40 years.”

Above: States and counties encompassed by the act's coverage formula in January 2008 (excluding bailed-out jurisdictions). Several counties subsequently bailed out, but the majority of the map accurately depicts covered jurisdictions before the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which declared the coverage formula unconstitutional.

Modern Voter Suppression Tactics

In addition to new voter ID laws, closure of polling places and cutbacks to early voting, states also began purging voter rolls, creating caging lists, attacking felon voter protections and enacting gerrymandering. Combined, these laws create a perfect storm of voter suppression, often targeted at communities of color.

To learn more about each voter suppression tactic, check out this article by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In the 2016 Presidential Election, it is estimated that up to 17 states may have had restrictive voting laws in place. On the eve of another Presidential Election, many are worried these restrictive laws will negatively impact voter turnout once again. As late as August 2020, President Trump announced his opposition for additional funding for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in order to make it more difficult to deliver mail-in ballots.

Looking Ahead

When discussing voting rights in the United States, voter suppression has been a part of the nation’s history just as equally as rights granted. For more than one hundred years, elected officials have made a targeted effort to disenfranchise certain Americans, enforce structural racism and uphold white supremacy. In the 21st Century, many of these elected officials continue to focus on communities of color, thinking of new ways to disenfranchise Americans from their constitutional right to vote.

However, the fight is not over. Now more than ever, it’s incredibly important for Americans to vote. Your voice does matter. Here are 3 things you can do:

1. In order to protect your voice, it’s important to know your rights.

The ACLU has put together a comprehensive plan to follow if you or someone you know face any issues while voting. Read it here.

2. You can also tell your Senators to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA),

which would enforce voting rights throughout the country. The House has already voted to pass the VRAA, but it is currently waiting in the Senate. Find more information here.

3. Finally, make a comprehensive plan on how to vote this year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to determine what type of voting is available for you. For more information, check vote.org.

Most importantly—don’t give up hope. Together, we can fight for more inclusive tomorrow.

To learn more about voter suppression, consider tuning in to our upcoming program Unpacking Voter Suppression: A Virtual Discussion with Gloria Steinem, scheduled on Thursday, October 22 at 7pm.

Katie Bramell, Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie’s passion is sharing the untold stories of history, and she loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (Masters of Public History) and the University of Central Missouri (Bachelors of History). Her primary fields of study include the Underground Railroad, human rights, and early 20th century American History.
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