Voting has been a staple of American life since the formation of the country. From the American Revolution to now, voting has been utilized to elect government officials for states, counties and the country. But, just as the practice of voting itself is universal, so are the actions of prohibiting those who can vote, specifically Black people and people of color. With historic obstacles in place such as: literacy tests, the Grandfather Clause, and poll taxes, each was used as a barrier and deterrent to accessible voting. The passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting and led to an improvement on voter turnout in the African American community. But throughout time, governing bodies with interests to retain their power formed new ways to suppress voting in communities of color.
The most common form of voter suppression is felon disenfranchisement, and this has been exacerbated through the 2017 Moral Turpitude Act, passed by Gov. Kay Ivey. This affected African American communities the most. Even if a conviction does not prohibit someone from voting, instances of voters being turned away by their voting registrars or being told to pay fees to be eligible still act as discouragement. “It’s placing an obstacle in front of another obstacle in front of another obstacle, and then pretending like it’s those people’s faults not being legally sophisticated minds,” said Dev Wakeley, a policy analyst for nonprofit organization, Alabama Arise.
Felon disenfranchisement is also the oldest form of voter suppresion, with roots connected to slavery. African Americans were subject to institutionalized slave labor to pay off debt and barred from participating in civic life, effectively being silenced and stripped of their power. “Felon disenfranchisement is currently the best way that those entrenched power interests maintain their hold on power. It’s a racist practice. It always has been and attempts to maintain,” Wakeley stated. The practice of maintaining this power continues as evidenced through current statistics of the Alabama population versus the prison population of African Americans as discussed by Stephanie Strong, lead organizer of Faith in Action, a faith based, nonprofit organization in Alabama. With goals of dismantling systemic racism at local and state levels, this glaring divide shows the urgency of representation for individuals in the African American community.
“In Alabama, the African American community makes up 26% of the population in Alabama and 50% of African Americans cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement, Strong said. With numbers such as these, it places an adverse effect on the ability to form a Black electorate as well as allow for the representation needed to enact change in policy and elections.
“It’s also important to know that although we represent 26% of the population, that the prison system consists of 54% African Americans.” Felon disenfranchisement is only one of the obstacles for voter turnout among African American voters as disparities are shown even more throughout the poorer regions of Alabama, specifically The Black Belt. Composed of 17 counties: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Pike, Russell, Sumter, and Wilcox, is faced with varying issues of voter access in polling places including but not limited to, controversy over closed DMV offices. Hindering ways to vote and even register through polling place closures are mounting acts of discrimination, placing residents in a bind when additional options are also criticized and cited as unjust.
Uncertainty over polling places, coupled with distance and now controversies with mail-in voting, add to voting obstacles. Allegations of mail-in voting fraud are used as a weapon against communities of color, even though they have been proven to be false. “Voting by mail had not been shown to increase in any sort of fraudulent activity, pretending that it has is a lot of the same dishonesty we’ve seen over the course of decades. And it’s dishonesty in favor of people who have maintained power structures in Alabama that hurt marginalized people,” said Wakeley. “The most fundamental things that we probably need as a society is a return to pre-clearance under section five of the Voting Rights Act.”
Coupled with the need for voting regulations, the need for caring for one another and the vote is also imperative. Being inclusive of everyone, especially ones hit hardest with voting restrictions, helps to level the proverbial playing field and give every citizen a voice in their interests.
“We have to bear down in every ounce of dignity and love for one another. We as people have to care about our fellow brothers and sisters that are having challenges in getting to the poll, said Strong. Quoting scripture, Strong continues, with the saying of “gird up our loins,” that acts as a rallying cry to raise excitement and give voters a vested interest in the issues being discussed and know that they matter.
“We have to raise voter joy, right? We have to raise voter joy that people get excited about what is possible and they want to vote. That people get excited about the opportunity to vote, that they can see themselves; their issues in these platforms that these candidates are running on, right. If they can see themselves. So those who may not necessarily be political savvy, to be able to understand the language, we need folks to know how to disseminate information and everyday language so that people can make informed decisions about voting.”