THEN: The 15th Amendment, ratified shortly after the Civil War and abolition of slavery, reads as the following:
“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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Optimistically, many Americans thought that the vote was now guaranteed for all men, regardless of race. When the 19th Amendment was passed, many more believed that this fundamental American right had now also been guaranteed to women. Unfortunately, the forces of racism and white supremacist politicians would persist.
Southern States immediately got to work on laws sneakily designed to disenfranchise black voters from voting, while not explicitly mentioning race. These laws included things like: literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses. Governor of Mississippi, James Vardaman, admitted in 1890 that these laws had “…no other purpose than to eliminate the n***** from politics.”
These tactics worked; by 1940 only 3% of black Americans were registered to vote. The Civil Rights movement aimed to change that. Led by Martin Luther King Jr. and groups such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) made concerted efforts to fix this. Fighting racist laws and registering over 250,000 black voters. But when the law wasn’t enough to suppress black votes, white supremacists turned to extrajudicial violence.
In 1964, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner went missing in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The three were civil rights workers, working with the Freedom Summer campaign in order to register black voters. An FBI investigation revealed that Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department had conspired with the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to abduct the men and shoot them at point blank range, before burying them inside of a dam where their bodies were found two months later.
In 1965, Martin Luther King and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council) organized a march from Selma to Montgomery in order to protest voter suppression. The march was immediately halted at the Edmund Pettus bridge by Alabama State Troopers, who then cooperated with white supremacist organizations to beat and terrorize the protestors.
While these weren’t the only instances of violence (or even the last), the horror and high-profile nature of them were enough to convince Americans to support and pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act banned the use of literacy tests, authorized the U.S. Attorney to investigate poll taxes, and most importantly: required states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their election laws.
Americans once again thought the vote would be guaranteed for all. Progress was being made until the Nixon Administration, in the midst of the Vietnam War, decided to use the War on Drugs as an excuse to lock up blacks. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper magazine, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Voter suppression once again began creeping back, as being a felon disenfranchises you from your right to vote.
NOW: In 2013, the Supreme Court heard Shelby County V. Holder. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court declared that barring states from changing their election laws without federal approval (Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) was unconstitutional. Justice John Roberts asserted that racial discrimination had long been over, and that this protection was no longer needed. Dissenting against this, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that this was “…like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Immediately many states began to once again sneakily suppressing black people and those living in urban centers. States got rid of things like same day registration, purged voter rolls of registered voters, and began putting in place Voter ID laws. This was done in the name of fighting electoral fraud, but the Brennan Center for Justice found that the voter fraud incident rate is 0.0003 percent. The North Carolina Appeals Court struck down a strict Voter ID law after declaring that it was an effort to “…target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
During the midterm, voter suppression was well and alive in the heart of America. In the controversial Georgia gubernatorial race, Brian Kemp ran against black candidate Stacey Abrams. Even though he was running for governor, Kemp refused to resign his position as Secretary of State. Because the Secretary of State oversees election, Kemp was able to carry out mass purges of voter rolls. Kemp also put 53,000 voter registrations on hold, 70% of which were for black voters. When asked to switch over to more reliable and secure paper ballots. Kemp refused. And when electronic voting booths crashed, died, or went missing in urban area (later found to be locked in closets), lines in urban areas went on for 2 hours or more. As of the time of this writing, Kemp is leading in the race by 85,000 votes, a razor thin margin where these underhanded tactics almost certainly made a difference. While the votes are still being counted, they are close enough that a recount may be triggered.
In North Dakota, a different tactic was tried during the Senate race. After Sen. Heidi Heitkamp won her race in 2012 with strong Native American support, new Voter IDs laws were put in place requiring voters to show they have a current residential address to vote. This prevented thousands of Native Americans from voting since many of them live on reservations, and use PO boxes instead of residential addresses.
Despite voter suppression measures being pushed all over the country, many reforms are also taking place. In Florida, 1.5 million former felons finally gained back the right to vote after the passing of a ballot proposal, in a rebuke to Nixon’s War on Drugs strategy. These former felons make up 10% of Florida population and 40% of black men. Unfortunately, these people were not able to vote in the last midterm election, where a black candidate also lost narrowly. Right here in Michigan, we were able to pass Ballot proposal 3, which automatically registers people to vote and offers same day registration.
These measures represent important steps in the fight to vote, but we must continue to be vigilant of insidious voter suppression tactics.