Although the end of the Civil War promised a bright future for racial equality in politics, the United States has been locked in a devastating cycle of racial progress and regression in voting rights for over a century. Soon after the war ended, an assembly of African Americans called the Freedman’s Conventions petitioned Congress for voting rights and equal treatment under the law in 1865 and 1866. Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867 which forced Southern states to write new constitutions that gave equal rights and protections to Black people. Southern Black men were granted the right to vote and run for office. However, it wasn’t until 1870 when the 15th Amendment was ratified that northern Black men were given the same rights. The 15th Amendment stated that a man may not be denied the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude”. Between 1865 and 1876, Black male Americans developed their political power by becoming sheriffs, lieutenant governors, congressmen and even senators.
Unfortunately, every era of progress has been followed by an era of backsliding. In the late 1870s, the federal government stopped using military force to enforce Black voting rights. White Southerners used violence and electoral fraud to intimidate Black men away from the polls and political offices. Although they skirted the overt race-based disqualifications outlined in the 15th Amendment, white politicians passed laws to prevent Black men from voting, such as literacy tests and poll taxes.
These restrictions of voting rights for Black Americans continued well into the 20th century. Civil Rights leaders led the fight for voting rights by registering voters, challenging discriminatory laws and organizing protests. Examples include Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who led over 600 protesters over Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in March 1965. The marchers were stopped, arrested and beaten by policemen in an event that is now dubbed “Bloody Sunday”. Bloody Sunday was broadcast live to millions of Americans whose disgust brought pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act five months later. It prohibited literacy tests and poll taxes while requiring every jurisdiction with a history of racial discrimination to send any proposed changes to their voting procedures to the federal government for approval.
A common misconception in America is that the tactics used to suppress the rights of African Americans were abolished in 1965. However, voting rights is a prime example of how oppression has evolved, instead of being extinguished. Like the late 1870s, Black Americans and other people of color are not restricted from voting outright. Instead, they are obstructed by insidious laws that disproportionately prevent them from the polls like voter roll purges, “exact match” law and voter ID requirements. Eligible voters of color are more likely to be purged off of the voter registration rolls, oftentimes with little notification. Even Black Americans who don’t have their registrations canceled may have their votes thrown out because their signatures or their names on their ID don’t “exactly match” their voter registration. 80% of Georgians whose registrations were blocked because of these restrictions were people of color in 2018. When Black voters do arrive to vote, they may get tripped up by voter ID laws. Voter ID laws require a voter to bring a government issued ID to the polls, such as a driver’s license or passport. Black Americans are more likely to use public transportation instead of cars and less likely to travel outside the country. 25% of voting age Black Americans don’t have a government issued ID whereas only 8% of white voting age Americans can say the same. One egregious example of this disparity is that a gun license is a valid voter ID in Texas but a student ID is not. 80% of Texans who received a gun license in 2018 were white whereas more than half of University of Texas students are racial or ethnic minorities.
All of these restrictions have gotten markedly worse after 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby v. Holder decision. The court struck down the provision that required the jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get permission from the federal government before enacting new voting procedures. Since then, voter purge rates in those protected areas have surged and are now 40% higher than in other jurisdictions. More voter ID and “exact match” laws have been passed across the country. Even more outrageously, hundreds of polling places have been closed or moved in communities of color since the decision – sometimes only 48 hours before Election Day. Maricopa County in Arizona, which is one-third Latino, has closed 171 voting locations since 2012. Dallas County, which is majority-minority, closed 74. In Georgia, more than 200 polls have closed. They are especially located in poorer neighborhoods with a higher African American population and where there is less public transport or car ownership.
Unfortunately, recent events signal that voter suppression will get worse before it gets better. In the run up to the election, Donald Trump and the Republican Party pursued a brazen national strategy to prevent and throw out votes in minority populated areas. Drop boxes were taken away. Lawsuits to throw out late ballots were filed. Even the results of Milwaukee, a city with a large Black population, were contested and attempted to be thrown out. Now that Trump has lost the election due to “voter fraud” as he falsely tells his supporters, the GOP is already rolling out new restrictions for the next election. Proposed changes include restricting mail-in and early voting, stricter voter ID laws, and discarding late mail ballots. Subversive tactics such as purging voter rolls and closing polling places are bound to increase as well.
The United States, despite its ideals, has always had an anti- democracy streak. Those in power limited those without it – primarily African Americans and other people of color – through slavery, Reconstruction, pre-Civil Rights and even now in the 21st century. In the face of dark days tomorrow, let’s remember the dark days of yesterday. The members of the Freedman’s Conventions and the marchers on Edmund Pettus Bridge organized, petitioned and fought for future they deserved. The primary lesson that we can learn from the past is that we must continuously fight for a better system, through awareness and activism, lest we want to return to a place we thought we had abandoned.