One of the key elements of the 2016 presidential election was the effort by right wing forces to suppress the voting of groups that do not support their politics.
Voting is the bedrock of democracy, the voice of the people. Yet the original United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, adopted in 1787, make no mention of the right to vote. The rules about who could vote was left to the states. This produced a maze of voting laws, including the exclusion of many groups.
It was not until 1870 – after the Civil War – that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution expanded voting, ensuring the right to vote to black Americans, at least in places where Jim Crow laws did not hold sway.
Over time, the right to vote was expanded to other groups. The 19th Amendment (1920) gave women the vote. The 23rd Amendment (1961) allowed citizens living in the District of Columbia to vote for president. The 26th Amendment (1971) dropped the voting age from 21 to 18.
In 1964, the 24th Amendment outlawed the poll tax, which had been used a weapon to keep black Americans from voting, especially in southern states.
A crucial moment in voter expansion occurred in 1965, not by a constitutional amendment but by the passage of the Voting Rights Act by Congress. For generations, barriers at the state and local levels prevented black Americans from exercising their right to vote even though it was guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted by many southern states, including the literacy test as a prerequisite to voting.
But most importantly, the Voting Rights Act contained special provisions targeted at areas of the country with histories of racial discrimination. Jurisdictions covered by these special provisions could not make any changes in their voting laws without preclearance from the federal Department of Justice.
Voter Suppression Efforts
With these landmarks, it might seem that the expansion of voting rights has progressed unencumbered. But organized efforts by conservative forces to suppress voting – through both legislation and intimidation – continue today.
The major weapon in voter suppression efforts is now the voter ID - usually a photo ID - in a phony attempt to prevent what right wingers cynically insist is voter fraud.
In fact, widespread voter fraud is a myth. The one and only aim of photo-ID laws is to keep groups that usually vote for Democrats – blacks, Latinos, college age voters - away from the polls.
Although a number of states have passed voter ID legislation, this maneuver has not fooled the federal judiciary. Federal courts have already struck down voter ID laws in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and North Dakota that discriminated against minorities.
There are many other tactics that right wing forces have used to suppress voter turnout. The purging of voter rolls, felon disenfranchisement, and cutting back on early voting are just a few of the ways that some politicians have sought – often successfully – to depress voter turnout.
In 1989, a legal challenge by the Community Service Society ended the New York City Board of Election’s discriminatory purge of voter lists. The board had removed over 300,000 low-income voters, most of them black and Latino New Yorkers.
There are many instances of politicians conniving in suppression efforts, some of them laughable, like the former secretary of state of Ohio, who tried to throw out voter registrations because he said they were printed on the wrong thickness of paper.
Eviscerating the Voting Rights Act
Attempts at voter suppression have grown in the past few years because of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.
The 5 to 4 decision, as written by Chief Justice John Roberts, was based on the presumption that the preclearance provision had its desired effect and was no longer necessary. Yet as soon as the decision was handed down, one state after another sought to adopt laws that would suppress voter turnout. Without preclearance, groups being suppressed must drag authorities into court to get relief, a long and expensive process.
After Donald Trump was elected president, he contributed to the attempt to suppress the vote by appointing an Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission, packed with believers, was supposed to uncover all sorts of voter fraud. But when the states refused to turn over voter and other sensitive information to the commission, Trump caved in and disbanded it.
Under Trump, the Justice Department, which was once in charge of protecting voting rights, has now become a player in the effort to suppress the voting of certain groups. In several federal court cases, it has taken the side of jurisdictions defending legislation that suppresses voting.
These continued attempts at voter suppression demonstrate just how precious the right to vote is. The battle over who gets to vote will continue. It is a struggle that we cannot afford to lose.