A colorized version of a black and white photo. A woman casts their ballot in a high school as two other people look at her.
Image Source: Unseen Histories / Unsplash

The Enduring Fight to Protect Voting Rights

The U.S. has a history of voting discrimination. Every initiative, march, and amendment to expand voting rights to marginalized groups in this country was met with rhetoric, policy, and violence to undermine and block voting power. Even today, the right to vote is not guaranteed across the country (The Guardian). Against a backdrop of voter suppression tactics like gerrymandering, voter purges, voter ID laws, fewer polling locations leading to longer lines, and disenfranchisement of the incarcerated, barriers are continually being implemented to diminish racial minorities, poor, disabled, young, and old voters’ access to the polls. In February, the Supreme Court overruled two lower courts to maintain a new Republican-drawn congressional map in Alabama until a ruling later this year (CNN). The congressional map was initially blocked for violating the Voting Rights Act, the landmark legislation meant to abolish racially-biased voting barriers. 

Signed into law on August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to “enforce the 15th Amendment to the Constitution” and prohibit discriminatory voting practices against all minorities (National Archives). Despite Black men being able to vote since 1870, states passed policies making it difficult for them to cast ballots. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, which exempted people whose ancestors, or grandfathers, who were allowed to vote before 1869 from taking these reading and writing tests, were used to disenfranchise Black men (NPR). 

TAKE ACTION

• Support the work of Forward Justice to restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in the South.

• Donate to Rideshare2Vote to provide free roundtrip rides to polling locations.  

Contact your state representatives and demand they restore and protect the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

For voters
• Stay updated with upcoming elections in your state, the voting laws in your state, and your voter registration status.

Efforts to subjugate and further suppress Black voting access were exacerbated by the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine (National Archives). Even as women were granted the right to vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920, similarly to the 15th Amendment, Black women were met with “brutal opposition” before and post ratification, including from white women suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (History, National Geographic). 

Intimidation tactics and physical violence were also used to suppress the Black vote and uphold white supremacy. This didn’t just happen in the South. Washington D.C. during the Reconstruction era was densely populated with Black people active in local government. In response to their growing political power, Congress gave the president jurisdiction to appoint leaders in D.C., dismantling the local government and suppressing Black people. 

U.S. Senator and former Confederate soldier John Tyler Morgan said they had “to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats…the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia” (History).

D.C. residents wouldn’t get to vote for president until 1964, when they would support Lyndon B. Johnson. He would go on to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965. 

It took the broadcasting of peaceful demonstrations juxtaposed against the brutality of white supremacy during the Civil Rights Movement for Black people to see a semblance of freedom, citizenship, and enfranchisement granted to them through the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments more than 80 years prior. The Voting Rights Act was passed following the Selma to Montgomery march, or “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers protesting for voting rights crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were met with “nightsticks, tear gas and whips” (History). 

The Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests, gave federal oversight on voting system changes in states with a history of discrimination, and added 250,000 registered Black voters by the end of 1965 (ACLU). In 1975, it was amended to also protect non-English-speaking voters from discrimination. 

However, protections against discriminatory voting laws in state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination were struck down in 2013 (Brennan Center). In 2021, the Court further weakened the Voting Rights Act by upholding two Arizona voting restrictions that advocates say place an undue burden on minority voters (NPR, SCOTUSblog). As a result, several states began enacting new barriers to voting, like laws limiting voter access, early voting, mail-in voting, and the hours of operation for polling places, including 33 laws in 2021 that made it harder for Americans to vote in 19 states (Brennan Center). 

We have discussed how the Founding Fathers never intended for democracy, including the right to vote, to extend to anyone who didn’t look like them or had wealth. And in the wake of anti-voter restrictions rooted in suppressing voters of color, we guarantee that only those that do, will. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The right to vote was not included in the original Constitution. 

• The Selma to Montgomery March helped solidify the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

• Voter suppression continues to strip away the voting rights of marginalized people.

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