“Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.” -Coretta Scott King
The United States was founded on principles of democracy and anti-monarchist ideology. So, it is ironic that a country built ‘for the people’ has a longer history supporting rhetoric that only gives power to the few. Alas, the fight for voting rights has been a recurring issue throughout American history- and elitist ideology, hegemonic patriarchical structuring and white supremacist doctrine are the guiding principles for restricting access to voting. This is voter suppression, and its past is extensive.
In the Beginning
After much debate about whether or not the pool of eligible voters should be expanded in 1787, the Founding Fathers turned the issue over to the states’ discretion. Article One, Section Four of the Constitution states that: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.” This seemingly harmless passage gave way to horrific unintended consequences that would continue into the 21st century. This laissez-faire attitude gives states the power to invoke exclusionary legislation that denies citizens access to voting through the guise of protection. Furthermore, the repercussions of this language perpetuate the divorcing of citizenship and its ties to voting rights.
The aftermath of this clause would prove to be horrendous. By 1800, each state in the union took legal action to reinforce systemic racism by disenfranchising Black people. Some states officially documented a white-only policy. In 1802, every state except Maine adopted legislation banning Black people from voting. New Jersey’s previous declaration that gave voting rights to all citizens of the state, made changes to exclude women and Black men. Maryland even banned Jewish people from voting until 1828, and Native Americans would not be considered as citizens for another century.
These instances of voter suppression were analyzed further during the period after the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments- which included the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments- ensured the freedom and protection of civil rights of all formerly enslaved people– or they were supposed to. The reaction to these amendments across the nation was one of ridicule. At this time, Black political participation increased at an astronomical rate all across the South, so much so, that the Black voter registration rate surpassed white populations’ voter registration rate in Louisiana, South Carolina and Mississippi. Over 700,000 Black people voted in the 1868 election, according to the 2018 statutory report “An Assessment of Minority Voting Rights.” This led to many multiracial governments all over the south and particularly Mississippi, where two Black senators were elected. The growing political influence of the Black community was met with an intimidation campaign from white politicians and citizens alike that demolished any control or political influence Black people obtained. After power was ceased, white Democrats held a state convention where they openly admitted to trying to find ways to get around the 15th amendment. A few years after this instance, the Compromise of 1877 pulled federal troops out of southern states, diminishing any accountability to conform to the new amendments.
The Social Death
Their circumventing actions experimented with possible factors that would make Black voters ineligible and resulted in the creation of a poll tax and a literacy test. These tools were successful obstructions that by 1892 would drastically reduce the amount of qualified Black voters in Mississippi from 90 percent to 6 percent. Mississippi established a precedent that many southern states would quickly follow by adopting their own versions of restrictive laws, known as Jim Crow laws. This code combined with racial violence continued for another 70 years.
By the 1960s, citizens all over the country would have participated in persistent protests for more than a decade. Non-violent protests were confronted frequently with murderous violence that was televised globally. The general public was appalled and the federal government would be forced to ratify the 24th amendment, forbidding poll tax. A year later, the Voting Rights Act prohibited the residual tactics that reinforced voter suppression and the act established federal oversight over areas that had a history of voter discrimination. More policies would be produced to ensure the protection of voting rights- but to no avail. Federal oversight had less agency to hold states accountable, and after party realignment occurred, many states instituted new restrictions- except this time they offered less transparency like in the past, and instead have coded the language so much so that it seems to mitigate election fraud. This is where dog whistle politics began to rear its ugly head.
Coded Language Today
The power of the federal oversight clause of the Voting Rights Act was reduced in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court which would have intervened with the voter registration regulations. These states with majority republican legislatures, created a variety of qualifications including having tangible identification or proof of citizenship, frequently purging lists of inactive names from registration polls, shortening voting periods of time, and limiting access to absentee ballots and mail in voting. Sound familiar yet?
Although Trump believes mail-in voting will increase voter fraud and advantage Democrats, Stanford University researchers have released the The Neutral Partisan Effects of Vote-by-Mail assessment that asserts there is no partisan advantage for either party. Furthermore, even after being told by many experts that election fraud in the U.S. is rare, Trump established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate voter fraud which was disbanded in 2018 after they found no evidence to support any claim to election fraud. Trump’s opposition to additional funding for the USPS proved problematic when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. The postal service company was not given any funding in the original stimulus bill text and their bailout request was rejected by the white house. Shutting down operations was beginning to look like reality. Because of the pandemic, many states have changed their procedure for absentee ballots, so more citizens can mail in their vote. Without the USPS, this could severely limit access to voting on a national level.
Even with all of this information, it begs the question if any form of restrictive laws are interconnected with voter suppression. The Assessment of Minority Voting Rights Access comprehensive report would answer yes and that these laws “have a disparate impact on voters of color and poor citizens.” The study goes on to critique voter identification laws as placing an undue burden on citizens by requiring them to pay fees in order to obtain these credentials. This is supported by the correlation of states with voter identification laws also having an increased gap between white and minority voters. The report also investigates the reduction of early voting and how it creates long waiting periods that directly limit minority citizen’s access to the polls. This coupled with the closing of polling stations in areas that have higher minority populations is suspect. Think about how Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp made headlines everyday. It was a disastrous display of voter suppression with a bus full of Black senior citizens being blocked from voting, as one of the most incredulous instances. Brian Kemp was able to use his position of Secretary of State to enact last minute regulations that suppressed Georgian votes, thus securing his victory. The Minority Voting Rights Access report urges the U.S. Congress to restore the federal oversight clause to the Voting Rights Act. Seeing as “racial discrimination in voting has been a particularly pernicious and enduring American problem.” It is safe to say that voting rights will continue to be an ongoing issue. Although legislation may aid in the protection of these rights, the persistent nature of systemic racism and white supremacy will continue to morph into legislation and legal doctrine that are conceptually unrecognizable, but produce the same outcome where minorities are exploited.