A brief history of voting rights — and disenfranchisement — in America
Is it time to revisit the Voting Rights Act?
By Eric Revell, Lorelei Yang, and Josh Herman, Countable News
Voting Rights (And Disenfranchising) in America
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What is the Voting Rights Act?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to guarantee the voting rights of racial minority groups, particularly Black Americans.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, and prohibited voter discrimnination based on race. Despite this, many states in the post-Reconstruction South implemented laws to systematically disenfranchise Blacks. These laws took on several forms:
- Poll taxes required voters to pay a fee (usually several dollars) in order to cast their ballot
- Literacy tests required voters to prove their ability to read, understand, or interpret a document such as the state constitution in order to vote
- Grandfather clauses exempted voters from poll taxes and/or literacy tests if their father or grandfather had been on voter registration lists during the Reconstruction era
- Old soldier clauses provided individuals who served in the Civil War or other specified wars an exemption from poll taxes and literacy tests, or provided an alternative to the test
Jim Crow Era & Segregation
The Jim Crow Era saw the segregation of Blacks and whites in society, which worked to further diminish voter registration and electoral participation by Blacks in the South. When grandfather clauses were ruled unconstitutional in 1915, states turned to “white primary” elections which barred blacks from participating in Democratic Party primary elections. Those primaries essentially functioned as general elections because of the Republican Party’s decline in the South after Reconstruction.
Voter disenfranchising continued, despite the outgrowth of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th Century and the enactment of laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1957 that were intended to eliminate voter discrimination.
The turning point came at the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama in 1965. The historical march was a response to the violent and sometimes deadly resistance Black voters faced while trying to exercise their constitutional right in the South. After President Lyndon B. Johnson mobilized the National Guard to protect the marchers from violent counter-protests, he delivered a televised speech to announce he would send Congress a bill to prohibit voter disenfranchisement.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 - LBJ’s second major civil rights bill, following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - was intended to enforce the 15th Amendment. The VRA allowed for direct federal efforts to increase Black voter registration in areas where it was suppressed. It also prohibited the use of practices like poll taxes and literacy tests by states in an effort to restrict voting.
The VRA further required areas with historic voter discrimination to seek the Justice Department’s preclearance of proposed new voting laws before they could be implemented to ensure they wouldn’t disenfranchise. Black voter turnout in the South increased in the years that followed and caught up with Black voter registration in the rest of the U.S. by the 1992 presidential election.
Recent voting rights legislation
The preclearance provisions of the VRA were reauthorized by Congress in 2006, but they were partially struck down by the Supreme Court in a 2013 decision known as Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.
The Court found that the formula used in the VRA ― which was based on voting patterns from 1964, 1968, and 1972 ― was outdated and no longer “grounded in current conditions,” and, therefore, infringed on states’ rights. The Supreme Court left the preclearance provisions intact, but dormant, pending the adoption of a new formula by Congress which, as of 2020, hasn’t occurred.
Expanding no-excuse absentee voting during COVID-19
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, numerous states have adopted no-excuse mail-in ballots for the 2020 presidential election.
These measures - some permanent and some temporary for this year alone - are meant to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 between voters and poll workers.
To check what your state’s doing this year, look it up on the state-by-state election details page.
Proposals to expand voter turnout during all elections
- Vote-by-mail: These proposals essentially provide absentee ballots for all voters. Four states (Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Hawaii) use vote-by-mail for all elections, and 17 other states use it for some elections or allow it to be adopted by counties.
- No-excuse absentee ballots: All states allow votes access to absentee ballots that can be sent through the mail, but 33 states plus the District of Columbia don’t require voters to provide an excuse for requesting an absentee ballot.
- Early voting: A total of 39 states allow voters to cast a ballot in person at their polling place in advance of Election Day without any excuse required, which expands access for voters whose schedule on Election Day may conflict with their ability to get to the polls. The timing of early voting varies from state-to-state.
- Same-day registration: A total of 21 states plus the District of Columbia allow voters to register to vote at the polls before casting their ballot on Election Day. All of these states require voters to show proof of residency, some require a state-issued ID with a photo, others permit photo-less ID, and still others let voters show a paycheck or utility bill to demonstrate their residency.
- Automatic voter registration: Some states have policies that automatically register residents to vote in the course of completing transactions at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles (DMV), or through other government agencies. Of the 18 states identified by the National Conference of State Legislatures as having AVR in June 2019, some allow voters to opt-in or opt-out at the time of transaction, while others send a postcard to residents afterwards that has to be returned in order to opt out.
There are also several other proposals to increase voter participation, such as lowering the voting age to 16 or restoring the voter eligibility of convicted felons upon their release from prison. Another proposal is the elimination of straight ticket voting, which allows voters to choose a party’s entire slate of candidates with a single selection on the ballot in the seven states which utilize it.
(Photo Credit: iStock.com / Joaquin Corbalan)
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