The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights of a U.S. citizen shaping the lives of everyone living in the United States. But in reality, the history of voting is also the history of voter suppression.
When the United States was first formed, only white male landowners could vote, with millions of black, female, and lower income people being disenfranchised despite being impacted by the policies passed by the elected officials. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, decreed that states were prohibited from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude" however, this did not provide automatic voting rights for African Americans. Towards the end of the civil war, federal troops were withdrawn from the Southern states and white-dominated state legislatures consolidated control. Further shenanigans ensued to disenfranchise African Americans with the Jim Crow laws implementing poll taxes, literacy tests and the infamous “grandfather clause,” which restricted voting rights to men who were allowed to vote, or whose male ancestors were allowed to vote, before 1867 – before the 15th Amendment allowing any African American man to vote. These Jim Crow laws and their system of segregation would remain in place for nearly a century. Interestingly, women had to wait more than 100 years for their right to vote until finally granted in 1920 with Native Americans having to wait even further, until 1962.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, securing voting rights for African Americans in the South became a central focus of the civil rights movement. Although the 15th Amendment had technically given African Americans the right to vote, they faced many hurdles to exercise this right in addition to the Jim Crow laws including intimidation and often violence to prevent them from accessing polling locations.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally banning segregation in schools and other public places, but it did little to remedy the problem of discrimination in voting rights. Johnson then subsequently passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 aimed to tackle some of the hurdles facing African Americans wishing to exercise their right to vote including removing poll tax, literacy requirements and the grandfather clause.
There are many other forms of voter suppression that contribute to the issues we still face with trying to increase voter turnout and participation in the democratic process. Some states still enact laws passed before 1870 prohibiting convicted felons the right to vote - according to the American Civil Liberties Union, only two states, Maine and Vermont, gives everyone the uninhibited right to vote. Three states currently disenfranchise felons from voting permanently: Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia. The banning of felons and ex-felons from voting is thought to have disenfranchised an estimated 6 million voters in 2016.
Gerrymandering is also considered to be another form of voter suppression as it is defined by Merriam-Webster as "to divide or arrange (a territorial unit) into election districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage."
The 2000 presidential election was a big turning point and brought voting processes back to the forefront of Congress. The 36-day fight over Florida’s votes, exposed flaws in the US electoral system that many Americans had not thought about since the end of segregation and the landmark achievements of the civil rights era. Not only was there a problem of reliability with the voting machines, but it also became clear that the United States had never established an unequivocal right to vote; had never established an apolitical, professional class of election managers; and had no proper central electoral commission to set standards and lay down basic rules for everyone to follow, free of political interference. In the absence of such a body, every jurisdiction was free to implement their own rules on everything from voter eligibility to whether or not to conduct recounts.
After the fight over the 2000 presidential race, the GOP’s response was not to be thankful that George W Bush was installed in the White House, but rather to obsess about how African American voters being allowed to stay in line beyond the official poll closing time in St Louis, and that voter registration efforts in poor inner city neighborhoods were in fact corrupt enterprises to pack voter rolls and ballot boxes on behalf of the Democrats.
Despite the successful passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 which “prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities”, in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the legislation by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advanced Federal approval.
Of the courts decision, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg stated:
“Beyond question, the Voting Rights Act is no ordinary legislation. It is extraordinary because Congress embarked on a mission long delayed and of extraordinary importance: to realize the purpose and promise of the Fifteenth Amendment. For a half century a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress, once the subject of a dream, has been achieved and continues to be made. The court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’s decision.”
Almost immediately, Texas announced that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps would no longer need federal approval. Changes in voting procedures in the places that had been covered by the law, including ones concerning restrictions on early voting, would then be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.
Voter ID laws have long been found to disenfranchise people of color and marginalized communities, who are less likely to have the kinds of IDs states require to vote. Voter ID laws require voters to present one of a few specific forms of government-issued photo ID’s in order to vote, even though more than 21 million U.S. citizens do not have any form of government ID. This requirement burdens those from lower-income communities, who may not have the time or funds to invest in costly government IDs, and those who may not be able to travel to apply for their IDs.
Between 2012 and 2018, there were 1,688 polling place closures in states previously covered by section five of the Voting Rights Act, according to a report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Before the Supreme Court decision, local officials would have had to submit these changes for federal review and show they were not discriminatory. Now, local officials are free to make those changes under the radar without analyzing the discriminatory impact of the closures. 214 of those closures were in Georgia. In 2015, Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s top election official, sent local election officials a memo outlining justifications for closing the polls and reminding them they no longer had to submit the changes for review to the federal government.
Long before the most recent presidential election in November 2020, the twice impeached, failed, former President Trump had stated that the only way he would lose the election, was if Democrats cheated, an echo of the accusations he threw at Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite winning. With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, many voters, in a bid to remain safe, requested mail-in ballots and some state legislatures supported an increase in early and mail-in voting which Trump stated, would be fraught with fraudulent votes. Despite his ongoing declaration that he won “by a landslide”, every attempt to challenge the vote in court has been thwarted, every recount has not unveiled any wide-spread voter fraud and despite the best endeavors of the Stop the Steal movement and an insurrection at the Capitol to prevent the Electoral College votes being certified, the twice impeached, failed, former President is just that. Former. President Biden and Vice President Harris won in a free and fair election.
Following the 2020 presidential election (and attempts by Donald Trump and Republican officials to overturn it, which are still ongoing (such as events in Arizona - https://www.politicsrus.net/post/the-arizona-fraudit) Republican lawmakers have initiated a sweeping effort to make voting laws more restrictive as a staggering assault on the heart of American democracy. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of March 24, 2021, more than 361 bills that would restrict voting access have been introduced in 47 states, with most aimed at limiting mail-in voting, strengthening voter ID laws, shortening early voting, eliminating automatic and same-day voter registration, curbing the use of ballot drop boxes, and allowing for more aggressive means to remove people from voter rolls. An analysis by the Washington Post described the effort as "potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction".
In Florida, the bill - Senate Bill 90 The Florida Senate (flsenate.gov) - focuses especially on voting by mail. It targets the use of drop boxes in which mail ballots can be deposited, and forces voters to reapply for mail ballots every two years rather than four – a move which critics fear will sow confusion and suppress turnout. The attack on mail-in voting is ironic given that the state has a long track-record of using that electoral method without any notable challenges. In several previous cycles, mail-in voting was used predominantly by Republican voters with no objections raised. But in 2020 there was a steep increase in Democratic voters who turned to casting their ballots by mail as a safety measure in the pandemic. Out of a total of more than 11m Floridians who voted in the presidential race, almost 5m did so by mail – about 44%. Suddenly, the practice of voting by mail has become a threat to voter integrity, according to the Republican party.
"This bill is just a vindictive way of trying to punish people for an election that some people just didn't like at the national level," said State Senator Audrey Gibson, a Democrat, during one of several emotional debates over the legislation.
One of the biggest changes in the bill involve limits and restrictions on ballot drop boxes, used by around 1.5 million Florida voters in the 2020 election. The legislation also cuts access to drop boxes by limiting their use to early voting hours unless they are located at election supervisors' offices.
In addition to new drop-box provisions, the Florida bill also bars local agencies from accepting outside money for nearly all election-related expenses and from mailing unsolicited ballots to voters; expands the no-solicitation zone outside polling facilities by 50 feet; reduces the number of elections a single vote-by-mail application covers; imposes new voter ID requirements for updating one's registration record and applying for a mail ballot; allows counties to begin canvassing returned mail ballots sooner pre-election; sets up a state-run "live turnout data" dashboard for Election Day turnout and election night mail ballot processing; and gives poll watchers, candidates, political parties and committees, or their designees, more access to certain election processes and materials.
The bill also spells out that a voter can only possess mail ballots belonging to an immediate family member -- a spouse, parent, child, grandparent, grandchild or sibling -- or one of their spouse's immediate family members, and a maximum of two other voters per election. Republicans said this prevents "ballot harvesting," and is necessary for election security. But Democrats disagree, arguing it doesn't matter who returns a ballot or how many one person returns since mail ballot verification only happens once the ballot gets to the supervisor's office.
Florida is just an example of the States passing election related bills with many others having already implemented changes or close to bringing to a vote. Some of the most concerning ones change the way state legislators choose the final electors such as with the Election Integrity Act of 2021 in Georgia. The bill gives the state legislature greater control over election administration. Ordinarily, important administerial decisions like ballot disqualification and certification of results are made by county boards of elections. Under the new law, the State Board of Elections is empowered to replace county boards with an administrator chosen at the state level if the State Board deems a county board to be performing poorly. It simultaneously gives the state legislature greater control over the State Board by replacing the Secretary of State as chair of the Board with an official appointed by the legislature; the legislature already appoints two of the five seats on the board, so under the new law the legislature appoints a majority of the board. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this enables "state takeovers of local election offices"—including deciding which ballots should be disqualified—which could "change the outcome of future elections, especially if they’re as hotly contested as the 2020 presidential election between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump".
Many more bills such as these will continue to pass over the next year. A solution that the Democrats are banking on, is being able to pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
While the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will protect the right to vote, which is absolutely crucial as state legislatures across the country are creating new barriers to voting, the For The People Act will also move the ball forward by creating new national standards that expands the freedom to vote and makes our elections more accessible. Without the For the People Act, the Voting Rights Act would only combat current voter suppression efforts.
For the People Act:
The For the People Act (FTP) includes innovative solutions to make our elections more safe, accessible, and fair, and sets important national standards to guarantee all eligible Americans’ right to vote, regardless of zip code, race, or background. It includes things like automatic voter registration, expanding absentee voting, guaranteeing the ability to vote early, blocking voter purges, and restoring the right to vote to people who have completed their felony sentences. It also includes a number of provisions to combat partisan gerrymandering, including new transparency requirements and the creation of independent citizens redistricting commissions that must draw maps that comply with the Constitution and Voting Rights Act and do not favor or disfavor political parties.
The FTP Act also offers a number of solutions to limit the influence of wealthy special interests and big political donors by creating a new small-donor focused citizen funded elections program, increasing disclosure requirements for dark money groups, strengthening the oversight and enforcement of campaign finance laws by restructuring the Federal Election Commission, and creating new rules to stop coordination between candidates and Super PACs.
The For the People Act includes measures to strengthen government ethics by expanding conflicts of interest laws for government officials, closing loopholes and increasing disclosure requirements for lobbyists, strengthening the Office of Government Ethics so it can enforce the law, creating a code of ethics for U.S. Supreme Court justices, and requiring presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.
There is a lot in the For the People Act, but each part of the bill is crucial, and all the solutions work together to increase the power of our voice in government and make sure our government officials are working for us, not wealthy special interests. The value of our right to vote is diminished when millionaires and billionaires can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections. The integrity of our ethics laws holding government officials accountable are weakened when there are barriers for us to vote and elect them. That’s why the For the People Act addresses so many of these different issues.
The bill has already passed the U.S. House on March 3rd and now is being considered in the Senate.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
After sections of the Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, it left voters of color vulnerable to state-passed voter suppression bills. Named after civil rights hero and long-time Congressman John Lewis, who passed away last year, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is a chance to not only restore the Voting Rights Act, but expand and strengthen it. Passing this bill will protect the freedom to vote for all Americans, particularly voters of color.
Both the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act can combat efforts by Republican state legislators to restrict the right to vote.
There are a number of hurdles to leap before being able to pass these bills. It is doubtful that any Republican will support such efforts and therefore, with a 50/50 split Senate, unless the filibuster is broken, these bills are unlikely to succeed despite a recent poll indicating that 68% of Americans support the For The People Act. Perhaps U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia said it best, recently commenting that “it is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in our society.”
It is clear that we have a lot of work to do to get both of these bills across the finish line, but we really don’t have any other option. With the constant attacks on the right to vote, more dark and special interest money flowing into our elections, and a recent attack on the basic idea of free and fair elections with the insurrection on January 6th, we have to act now to protect and strengthen our democracy. We can not afford to delay, particularly with mid-terms 18 months away and a risk that Democrats may lose their majority in Congress.