By Keya Rav
The right to vote has been coveted throughout history. Voting gives the people a say in what their government decides; through voting, the people hold power over the government. However, the government has been able to exclude certain groups from voting, and ultimately from having that power. Voter suppression is a rampant issue rooted deeply in the foundations of the United States, and it carries on to this day. Though many may feel that voter suppression was solved once everyone gained the right to vote, that is not the case. Voter suppression has been present in the US since the founding of our country, and it still endangers the right to vote for many.
The United States’ Revolutionary slogan “No taxation without representation!” demanded the right to vote for the policies that would affect them. However, the first people to be able to vote in the United States were only white, property-owning males above the age of 21. These men made up a small percentage of the population, meaning that elections were decided by a handful of the country (and the electoral college). Yet, voting requirements were decided by the states, so some states chose to give more individuals the right to vote. For example, New Jersey allowed women to vote as per Section XI of their legislature(1), but this right was rescinded in 1807 due to inter party politics. The status quo for voting eligibility remained white males; however, the Suffragette movement gained traction in the early 1840s.
In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Lucretia Mott, campaigned for women’s right to federally vote. Sadly, this fight had to be put aside until the end of the Civil War (1861-1865), as politics were overrun by the conflict. The Suffragette movement reemerged in the early twentieth century, as more states began to give women the right to vote. After World War I, the 19th Amendment, which allowed voting regardless of gender, was ratified by Congress. It was federally signed into law on August 18, 1920 (100 years ago!) and was considered a major step towards voting equality. However, women of color were not extended this same right, as voting rights for Black people had a far more complicated and suppressed history.
Even before the Civil War, it had been a challenge for free Black men to vote. Many states outright forbade Black people from voting, while others used systematically unfair tactics to keep them away from the polls. For example, poll taxes were generally used to keep the poor from voting. After the Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era, it became much more challenging for Black people to vote. Despite the 15th Amendment granting the right to vote for all races, it was still extremely hard for people of color to get their vote in. Poll tax laws now included literacy tests and the grandfather clause, which were bound to disenfranchise potential Black voters. Literacy tests harmed their voting potential in that many Black people, who were formerly enslaved, had no access to education and therefore could not read. The grandfather clause was far more insidious, requiring that a voter’s grandfather have been able to vote, effectively eradicating the Black vote as no Black person’s grandfather had been able to vote prior to the Reconstruction Era.
Alongside government placed restrictions, Black people also had to live in fear of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan if they went out to vote. The KKK, having formed in 1865 after the Civil War, made it their mission to stop Black people from exercising their newfound right to vote. This fear carried on through to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when the Freedom Riders were threatened during their travels through the South on interstate buses. However, in 1964, poll taxes were eradicated by the 24th amendment. It was later followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the racist measures Southern states had been taking to disenfranchise marginalized voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a major accomplishment for the voting rights of Black people.
Despite the work done by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, though, there were groups who still did not truly gain the right to vote until the 1970s. Native Americans needed legislations protecting their voting rights through the 1980s.(2) They had only been granted citizenship in 1924, along with the right to vote, but they were still affected by the same racist measures that were used to block Black people from voting. The fact that many Natives lived on reservations was also used against them, as voting booths were not accessible to them. Native poverty is aligned with this same issue — Natives who are poor cannot get access to the funds necessary to make the trip to the polls. In regards to poverty, the poor were often affected by racist measures as well.
Despite a majority of the poor population happening to be people of color, poor whites were often also affected by poll taxes and literacy tests. However, poor people today face a different problem: inaccessibility. They are unable to make the time to vote, as they are restricted by odd work hours. Their limitations mean that they cannot take the time to leave their job to go out and vote, meaning they don’t get to be counted. This is just one of the few systematic forms of voter suppression.
Systematic oppression is the new tactic used to suppress voters. Modern day voter suppression is not based on the exclusion of certain groups; instead it finds loopholes to attack the marginalized. The aforementioned inaccessibility to the poor is just one of these attacks. Voter suppression occurs through voter registration as well. In 2016, Brooklyn purged thousands of voters from their registries. This purge most dramatically affected Latino voters, as proven through electoral district maps of the city.(3) By removing the record of registration for Latino voters, Brooklyn took away their rightful voices. There is also the issue of the electoral district maps, as they can be seen as gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of voter maps to favor a party or class. By purging a certain area from the voter rolls, an entire group of people with like minded ideas is purged from the vote.(4) These voter purges were illegal, yet this was not their only occurrence. While voter purges are interpreted as illegal, voter suppression is legal in the form of the justice system.
Criminals & The Justice System
The United States justice system has many flaws, but it is what happens after being through the justice system that affects voters. In many places throughout the country, felons lose the right to vote. However, they are often not informed of this predicament — so they try and vote, only to be arrested for doing so. This is what happened to Crystal Mason.(5) After serving three years in prison, she went out to vote on Election Day 2016. At the polls, she was told that she was not on the registry, but she could cast a provisional ballot if she desired. She did so, but was arrested two months later and sentenced to five years in prison on the grounds of voter fraud. However, this was not fraud, as she had no idea she was unable to vote due to her previous record.
Many ‘criminals’ face this same problem — and many of them happen to be Black. The US prison system is disproportionately full of Black people;
African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites.(6)Ashley Nellis, The Sentencing Project
This is a problem within the US justice system, to arrest Black people far more than they arrest white people, and this is also a form of voter suppression. By imprisoning Black people, governments have an excuse to take away their right to vote. This is happening even today, with protestors being threatened to have their voting rights taken away in states like Tennessee.(7) Though protests have been peaceful, all protesters for the Black Lives Matter movement are being branded as rioters, and the fearmongering makes it seem as though it is okay that they could lose the right to vote.
Modern Day Voter Suppression
Alongside this issue is the danger the United States Postal Service is in. Mail in voting is the safest option for voting during a pandemic, but President Trump believes it will only bring voter fraud, despite having voted by mail multiple times in the past. He has attacked it from many angles, and is carrying through with the Republican plan to defund the USPS. Without the USPS, voting would be inaccessible for so many more people, especially those who feel that it is unsafe to line up at the voting booths in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are no signs that the pandemic will be gone by November, in fact the danger only seems to be rising. By defunding the USPS, Trump and the Republicans are suppressing the vote of everyone who cares for public safety.
Voter suppression is an issue that has been present in the United States since the founding of this country, and it clearly isn’t going away anytime soon. Simply having the right to vote does not make voting accessible and fair, and there are so many people who have been stripped of their right to vote. The United States is a country that prides itself on its democracy, but how can a country be democratic when voter suppression is embedded in its core? The vote is so extremely important to the people, and it’s crucial that everyone gets to carry out their civic duty. Make sure you’re registered to vote, and request your mail-in ballot as soon as possible, so that you can vote, in honor of everyone who is unable to.
ZENERATIONS X MY SCHOOL VOTES: Register to Vote!
For the teens taking the world by storm, voting is one of the most important ways we can inspire change. As Generation Z, it is our civic duty to vote and make the differences we’re capable of making.
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Graphic Designer, Artist, Writer
Keya Rav is a 15 year old from New Jersey (USA). She’s a first Gen Indian, and also bisexual. Keya been a classical dancer and a traditional artist for the past ten years, and has played the flute for eight years. She is the flute section leader in her school’s award winning marching band, and a part of their top ensemble. In addition, Keya is a national student ambassador for the my school votes program. She passionate about dance, art, music, writing, and politics. She believes in making the world a better place for everyone to exist, because we’re all human and we all deserve empathy.
- New Jersey Women’s History. “1797, An Act to regulate the election of members of the legislative council and general assembly, sheriffs and coroners, in this State” 5 December 2012. http://www.njwomenshistory.org/Period_2/voting.htm
- Library of Congress. “Voting Rights for Native Americans.” https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/elections/right-to-vote/voting-rights-for-native-americans/
- Ye, Jenny, John Keefe, and Brigid Bergin. NPR. “Latino Voters Hit Hardest By Brooklyn Voter Purge.” 21 June 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/06/21/482968834/latino-voters-hit-hardest-by-brooklyn-voter-purge
- Smith, Terrance. ABC News. “Timeline: Voter suppression in the US from the Civil War to today.” 20 August 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/timeline-voter-suppression-us-civil-war-today/story?id=72248473
- Cheng, Amrit. ACLU. “CRYSTAL MASON THOUGHT SHE HAD THE RIGHT TO VOTE. TEXAS SENTENCED HER TO FIVE YEARS IN PRISON FOR TRYING.” https://www.aclu.org/issues/voting-rights/fighting-voter-suppression/crystal-mason-thought-she-had-right-vote-texas
- Nellis, Ashley. The Sentencing Project. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.” 14 June 2016. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/
- Mansoor, Sanya. TIME. “New Tennessee Law Severely Sharpens Punishments for Some Protesters, Potentially Endangering Their Voting Rights.” 23 August 2020. https://time.com/5882735/tennesee-law-protest-voting-rights-felony/