Have you ever worried that people will vote twice in the election, or that the votes of the deceased will count? Well, you shouldn’t be. After the 2020 election and the victory of Joe Biden, claims of voter fraud were made in many swing states. These claims were then investigated thoroughly. Conclusions drawn by the courts and by Attorney General Bill Barr were unanimous. The election was secure and there were no instances of large-scale voter fraud. The conversation should have ended there, but it didn’t. Elected Conservative officials continued to push a narrative of mass voter fraud, and that the result of the election was fraudulent. A poll by CNN showed that 76% of self-identified Republicans believe that there was widespread fraud in the election. Some were so sure of it that they stormed the Capital as congress was certifying Joe Biden’s victory. The lie of voter fraud that caused an insurrection resulting in the death of a police officer, is the same lie that Republicans in 43 legislatures across the country are using to make it harder to vote.
The Origins of Voter Suppression
Making it harder for people to vote is not a new concept. Since the founding of America, conservatives have tried to retain power by making it harder for their political counterparts to vote. Conservatives opposed reconstruction efforts that integrated black people into society and protected their right to vote. They also fought for Jim Crow laws that made black people Second level citizens and stripped them of political power. Throughout history, voter suppression tactics have evolved, but the purpose is still the same; to stop black people from voting.
Voter Suppression After Reconstruction
After the Civil War, the then-liberal Republican Party had power in the federal government. With this power, they passed the Reconstruction Act which aimed to integrate 4 million freed slaves into American society. Slaves were then granted many civil liberties, including the right to vote. Many progressive Republicans and African Americans were elected in the following election. However, after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson was in charge. He did not like black people and was very lenient with the South. This allowed the south to find loopholes in laws to continue the oppression of African Americans.
White supremacists exploited the grace shown by Andrew Johnson and made it almost impossible for black people to vote. They would face terror and intimidation from groups like the KKK and white supremacist mobs. Many states in the south passed laws that made it nearly impossible for Black people to vote. The most notorious of these laws were the grandfather clause, the poll tax, and the literacy test.
The Poll Tax
Under a poll tax, one must pay a tax two years before an election in order to vote. At the time, the purpose of this tax was to make it harder for poor African Americans to vote. It seems fair since everyone is taxed. However, during that era, it was extremely hard for black people to gain capital due to segregation.
Before someone registered to vote, they were required to take a literacy test. The test would be administered by a county clerk who was almost always a white supremacist. The clerk would choose a part of the state constitution that the subject would have to read and explain. For black people, the clerk would choose the harder sections, and sometimes, the entire thing. Even if a black voter explained it perfectly, the clerk could still deem the subject illiterate and deny their right to vote.
The Grandfather Clause
The grandfather clause gave the right to vote to anyone whose grandfather had the right to vote before the civil war. This only benefited white people considering that before the civil war, black people were slaves.
Voting Rights in the 1960s
After World War II, many African Americans who had served their country came back home. Even though they had just fought a war on behalf of the U.S, the laws in that country were still discriminatory against them. In the south, only 3% of black people were registered to vote in 1940. With no electoral power, they had very little or no representation in state, local or federal government.
Civil rights leaders, predominantly in the southern states, started to use multiple different strategies to protest inequality in voting and other aspects of their lives. One protest that had a dramatic effect in the fight for voting rights was “Bloody Sunday”. On March 7, 1965, Civil Rights leaders marched from Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery. Alabama state police beat the protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when they refused to stop marching. The incident was televised. President Lyndon B. Johnson called for voting rights legislation after seeing this. Eight days later, he called on Congress for a joint session where he gave a speech about how the south was denying the right to vote to African Americans. In August of that year, Congress passed The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Among many other things, this law outlawed literacy tests and allowed federal examiners to examine state elections and voter qualifications.
This law had a significant impact on the amount of African Americans that registered to vote. By the end of the decade, Black registered voters had increased by 50%. Unfortunately in many states, there still are laws that aim to make it harder for individuals to vote.
Modern Day Voter Suppression
The work of the Civil and Voting Rights leaders of the previous centuries had major impacts on protecting the rights of all Americans. Sadly, those rights are under attack. Today there are laws being passed that make it harder for all people, but specifically people of color, to vote.
Shelby County v Holder
On June 5th, 2013, the supreme court ruled that section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. That did a lot of damage to Voting Rights across the country. Section 4(b) contains a formula for the Attorney General to use in order to identify jurisdictions with previous problems of racial discrimination. This included many states in the south, Michigan, and even parts of California and New York. When these jurisdictions make any changes to their election laws, they would have to obtain “pre-clearance” from a three-judge court or the Attorney General of the United States. The Supreme court thought the section’s criteria was “outdated.”
Representatives then created the Voting Rights Advancement act of 2019 that would create new criteria for determining troublesome jurisdictions. It passed the house without a single Republican vote and is now waiting in the Senate. Due to polarization in Washington and rules like the filibuster, there is most likely not going to be reform anytime soon. For now, these states can pass election laws with no oversight from the courts or the federal government.
Voter Suppression Today
As of March 26, 2021, there are currently 253 bills in 43 different state legislatures that would restrict voting. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder, there is no federal oversight, and the states do not need to receive pre-clearance. This effort is being led by conservatives, a pattern we can see in history. The 253 bills mainly restrict early and absentee voting, and enact stricter voter ID laws.
The arguments being made by conservatives are mainly about increasing confidence in the election process and eliminating voter fraud. However, the voices who caused people to be skeptical about our elections, by lying about individual fraud, are conservatives. Research from the Heritage Foundation highlights how insignificant voter fraud by individuals is. They have found only 1,317 instances of individual voter fraud in state, local, and federal elections since 1979. It is worth noting The Heritage Foundation is a conservative organization. Anybody who says stricter voting laws are to protect our elections doesn’t know how safe they already are when it comes to people voting.
Voter Suppression’s Impacts on Different Communities
Some think that we live in a post-racial society; that the issues of the civil rights era have been completely resolved. That is not the case. Today, voter suppression targets communities of color that didn’t have their right to vote for a long time, just like we saw in the Jim Crow era.
Voter ID Laws
Due to systemic racism, families of color tend to be poorer and less likely to have an ID. Politicians who advocate for these laws do not share the same interests as black and non-white Americans. On top of that, voter ID laws can sometimes suppress political groups. For example, in Texas, your Handgun Licence counts as a valid ID, meanwhile, your student ID doesn’t. Gun owners tend to be conservative, while young college-educated students tend to be more liberal.
Restricting Absentee and Early Voting
Restricting absentee and early voting affects voters with fewer resources. A lot of politicians make claims that voting by mail is somehow more fraudulent, but in states like Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, there is universal mail in voting and their elections are secure. Voting by mail allows voters who may be busy to vote from home instead of taking a trip to the polls.
There are some cases of laws that target black voters explicitly. For example, in Georgia, there is a bill that would restrict weekend early voting to one Saturday, and then one additional Saturday or Sunday during the first weekend of early voting. Many are calling out this provision due to the fact that it makes it possible for there to be no in-person voting on Sundays. This has a significant impact on the African American community in Georgia because churches there have an initiative called “souls to the polls” where the churches organize vans and busses to take voters to the polls.
Voter fraud is not a legitimate concern. Individuals almost never commit voter fraud. Voter ID laws do not have an impact on the security of our elections. Restricting absentee and early voting creates obstacles for the less fortunate as well as people of color to exercise their constitutional rights. It’s widely agreed that restricting the right to vote in the days of Jim Crow was wrong, so why can we not all agree that restricting the right to vote is wrong today as well?
Information from: Vox.com, History.com, NLIHC.org, Americanhistory.si.edu, The New York Times, CNN, NPR, Heritage.org, Newsweek, Congress.gov, kff.org