The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declares the belief that all men are created equal. Unfortunately, nearly 250 years later, not all Americans have an equal right to vote and many racial and ethnic minorities are effectively being taxed without representation. What began as a system that allowed only white property-owners to vote has evolved to a more inclusive democracy—the battle for equality continues.
The history of voting rights in the United States can be viewed as an arm-wrestling match between two forces: one which wishes to make voting more difficult and one which wishes to make it more simple.
When the 15th Amendment gave all adult male citizens the right to vote, Southern states implemented poll taxes to discourage African-American voters, and then added literacy tests to discourage them further. When these efforts backfired by preventing many poor white citizens from voting, those Southern states added a grandfather clause that exempted anyone who could vote before 1870, or any of their descendants (i.e. white citizens), from the requirements.
In the 20th century, the federal government repeatedly stepped in to police discriminatory voter laws. This included removing literacy tests and abolishing the practice of ‘white primaries,’ where states like Texas had conducted their primaries through private associations that could exclude whoever they wanted. It also included striking down long residency requirements for voting in certain districts —requirements that, in effect, restricted voting rights to the equivalent of property owners again. These interventions culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enshrined the voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country.
That landmark piece of legislation has been under attack ever since.
In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act which placed a check and balance on changes to voting laws. This system was intended to ensure that areas that had a history of discriminatory voting laws did not pass new laws which further restricted people of color from voting. But Shelby County, a Republican Attorney General, and a conservative-leaning Supreme Court argued that times had changed and discriminatory practices in these states had long been eradicated.
Previously, the Voting Rights Act had demanded that the burden of proof was on voting jurisdictions to prove that new laws weren’t discriminatory toward minority voters. But now the offense and defense had switched sides. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that removing the check and balance against discriminatory voting laws was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you aren’t getting wet.”
Within 24 hours of the 2013 ruling, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Arizona began the process of implementing restrictive voting laws. Over the intervening years, hundreds of measures have since sprouted up across 25 different states, which limit voting times, require photo IDs, revoke the voting rights of those with past criminal convictions, and make it harder for first-time voters to register to vote. Each of these steps has disproportionately dissuaded and prevented minority groups from voting in elections, and has thereby reinforced that minority status even as the wider demographics approach parity.
Startlingly, the methods used to suppress voting rights haven’t changed much in 200 years.
The most common form of voter suppression today is to require voters to present photo identification. This may seem innocuous until one considers that over 21 million Americans do not have a photo ID—and those 21 million are disproportionately low-income, and largely come from racial and ethnic minorities. Some 25 percent of voting-age African Americans lack a photo ID, while only 8 percent of their white counterparts do. And some Americans may have difficulty attaining a photo ID for a number of reasons: the required time off of work, the possibility of language barriers, and the costs of the ID itself and the prerequisite documents needed to attain that ID. When one also considers that racial minorities are more likely to be asked to present their photo ID than their white counterparts, the problem escalates further. Voter ID laws are modern incarnations of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Other methods of voter suppression include:
These policies are precisely the type outlawed by the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 and they beg the question: why would anyone try to make voting harder?
For most of the restrictive laws and tactics outlined above, practically the only justification presented is that they’re an effort to reduce in-person voter fraud. But such voter fraud is absurdly rare. Between 2000 and 2010, there were 640 million votes cast, 47,000 UFO sightings, and 13 cases of in-person voter impersonation. While it’s difficult to find data on how these new voter ID laws have impacted the average 1.3 cases per year of in-person voter fraud, there’s little question on what these laws do achieve: they make voting harder—primarily for those who already have it tough.
A parallel trajectory of voter suppression exists in the continued gerrymandering of congressional districts. By redrawing the borders of voting areas in order to secure the election of a particular political party, the power of a cast vote is reduced to nearly nothing.
One example of continued gerrymandering exists in North Carolina. In 2011, Republicans redrew the state’s map to dilute the voting power of African-Americans, packing the majority into just two of the state’s 13 districts. When the Supreme Court found this to be an unconstitutional case of racial gerrymandering, North Carolina Republicans redrew the map again, focusing on political party rather than race. While lower courts ruled this to be an unconstitutional case of gerrymandering, the Supreme Court reversed this decision in 2019, stating its reluctance to give the question of deciding partisanship to the judiciary branch.
But if the judiciary is unwilling to protect voting rights, who is?
Congressional Democrats are fighting back. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore many provisions cut from the Voting Rights Act, was introduced by Democrats in 2019. It would give the federal government the authority to act against restrictive voting laws in states with a history of discrimination. A similar measure, known as the For the People Act, has been tucked into a wider anti-corruption bill. It’s unlikely, however, that either one will implement changes that affect the 2020 election.
Civil society is backing them up. The ACLU uses litigation and advocacy both to ring the bell for the repressed and to push for change in the court system. The Brennan Center for Justice supplies policy proposals and analytical reports on restrictive voting legislation. Common Cause and its million-plus supporters push for pro-democracy reforms that ensure every eligible voter has an equal voice. Grassroots organizations like Vote Allies pair ballot-casting voters with disenfranchised citizens, so that even those who have lost their voice can still have a say.
To promote voting rights is simple: instead of making it harder to vote, how can we make it easier? The future presents some options. Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren have all put forward proposals to boost voting rights. These include:
The best place to fight voter suppression and restore voting rights remains—paradoxically—at the polls.