By Sequoia Smith
Voting is the most fundamental part of democracy. It is important to acknowledge that even though voting is the foundation of any functioning democracy, the United States of America has a long history of suppressing the right to vote. It was not until 1870 that the fifteenth amendment gave Black men the right to vote. Even though legally, Black men had the right to vote, states across the country implemented different tactics to inhibit that right. One of the most common tactics in the south was the grandfather clause. The grandfather clause was a rule that if you or your family had the right to vote before 1867, you were exempt from voting requirements such as literacy tests, property ownership requirements, and/or poll taxes. Of course, since Black people were not allowed to vote until 1870, they did not qualify and were forced to take literacy tests and/or pay poll taxes.
Poll taxes were voting fees that you had to pay before you were able to vote. They gained popularity after the Reconstruction Era because Black people had gained political power, and white southerners were disgusted by it. By making Black Americans pay poll taxes, it meant that millions of them were disenfranchised because they simply could not afford the tax. The practice of poll taxes occurred up until 1964, when they were outlawed by the twenty-fourth amendment. In addition to the poll taxes, many states also required Black Americans to take and pass a literacy test before voting.
These were designed to disenfranchise Black Americans by wording the tests weirdly, asking obscure questions, enforcing short time limits, and much more. Many of these discriminatory practices were used up until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed voter disenfranchisement based on race, Black and Brown Americans still face disproportionate disenfranchisement to this day. While legal scholars will argue that the Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, did not create the problem of voter disenfranchisement, it definitely laid the foundation for voter suppression post-Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The U.S. Supreme Court Case, Shelby County v. Holder, is a case about the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shelby County of Alabama brought a lawsuit against then-Attorney General, Eric Holder, arguing that the 4th and 5th clauses of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional. The fifth clause of the Voting Rights Act barred certain districts from changing any of their voting laws without receiving federal clearance. The fourth clause outlines the criteria for which districts were required to undergo federal preclearance. The criteria for federal preclearance was if a district had discriminatory voting tests pre-Voting Rights Act and had less than a 50% turnout for the 1964 presidential election. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, therefore gutting section five due to the lack of criteria that was needed to enforce section 5.
The result of this decision led to a strong influx of voter suppression. Jurisdictions that were tied to preclearance by the Federal government “on average federal preclearance jurisdictions shut down 20% more polling stations per capita than jurisdictions in the rest of the country.” Although there are several legitimate reasons for shutting down polling stations, Vice News discovered that for every ten polling places that closed across the country, 13 closed within the districts with federal preclearance rules.
Along with mass closings of poll stations many states that were under federal preclearance rules also have voter ID laws, limits on early voting, and a ban on same-day registration which greatly impacts voter turnout, specifically voter turnout across communities of color. Although voter suppression laws were nothing new when the Supreme Court ruled on this case, it laid the foundation for the normalization of voter suppression, specifically gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the act of redrawing congressional district lines to favor one political party over the other. Although both major political parties participate in gerrymandering, it almost always greatly favors the GOP. After the historic win of Barack Obama in 2008, the Democrats controlled the legislative and executive branches. The GOP came to the conclusion that if they were going to have a chance at regaining their control in Congress, they would need to redraw district lines to benefit their party. The Republican State Leadership Committee launched an initiative referred to as REDMAP, to take back their political power. REDMAP poured $30 million dollars into state races across the country to ensure victory for Republicans nationwide.
After the 2010 midterms, Republicans gained unilateral control of 11 state legislatures, which resulted in increasing their total number to 25 state legislatures. The purpose of flipping state legislatures across the country was to have control over the redistricting process that happens the year after the Census. Republicans used their newfound power to re-draw such skewed maps that in 2012, Pennsylvania’s Democratic congressional candidates received 100,000 more votes than Republican candidates, yet Republicans won 13 of the 18 seats. That means the minority party received almost 75% of the Congressional seats up for grabs. Pennsylvania’s lack of proportional representation in the 2012 midterm election is just one illustration of how the GOP undermined our democracy; it does not stop there.
Gerrymandering is a popular way to influence the American electorate greatly, but it is not the only way that elected officials to interfere with our political process. Every state, except Maine and Vermont, bans prisoners from voting. Ten states bar you from voting for life if convicted of certain crimes. Sixteen states bar you from voting until your sentence is served, including probation or parole. These types of laws are nothing new to America’s political landscape. In 1840, four states had felony disenfranchisement laws, but by the civil war, that number jumped to twenty-four.
Once the civil war ended there was a string of events that led to a drastic spike in laws restricting voting, the biggest being the Black codes, which were a group of laws that criminalized Black people to ensure the continuance of free labor. It’s no coincidence that the same year that the fifteenth amendment was ratified, over half of the United States had some form of felony disenfranchisement law.
As time has gone on, it has only become clearer how badly felony disenfranchisement laws target Black and Brown Americans. In 2016, one in thirteen Black Americans of voting age were disenfranchised. Over seven percent of Black adults were disenfranchised compared to less than two percent of non-Black adults. It is estimated that over six million Americans have lost the right to vote. In Iowa, once you are convicted of a felony, you are barred from voting for the rest of your life unless you successfully apply to the governor for the restoration of your voting rights. This law impacted almost 10% of the Black population in Iowa. There is some good news, though, as of June 17, 2020, the governor, Kim Reynolds has committed to restoring some voting rights to convicted felons.
Although it might seem like restricting people’s votes as a punishment is a valid consequence for violating the social contract of our society, it is not. It is easy to dehumanize prisoners and say they do not have the right to vote because they did something bad, but one must remember that voting is not a privilege that you can lose – it’s a right. What kind of country are we if we do not allow people to voice their opinions no matter what? Our country’s founding premise was no taxation without representation; if we are going to make people pay taxes but not allow them to vote on what is happening in our country, then we are not a democracy.
It is time for the United States of America to truly embrace the democratic ideals of proportional representation and voting as a right, not a privilege.
Once our government treats voting as a right instead of a privilege, I believe that if our government upheld our fundamental rights, voter turnout would skyrocket, and people would feel a sense of duty to participate in our political process.