The Fifteenth Amendment (Amendment XV) to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It was ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments. Still, many African-Americans were disenfranchised, denied the right to vote. Especially in the south, new state constitutions began to crop up with laws providing such obstacles as poll taxes and literacy tests (see sample below of Louisiana’s literacy test), both of which white citizens were exempted from under a “grandfather clause”. In case the person happened to be able to both pay the poll tax and pass the literacy test (very few could do either), there was always good old violent intimidation.
Slowly, the wheels of justice began to turn, and in 1915 the grandfather clause was struck down. In 1964 the poll tax was struck down by the ratification of the 24th amendment. Then came the big advance, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on 06 August 1965. The Voting Rights Act prohibited any and all racial discrimination in voting. It provided federal oversight of elections in discriminatory jurisdictions, banned literacy tests and similar discriminatory devices, and created legal remedies for people affected by voting discrimination. It was truly a landmark piece of legislation, and arguably one of the most important victories of the civil rights era.
In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 is the provision of the law that designates which parts of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government or in federal court. Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas (himself an African-American), and Samuel Alito ruled that Section 4 was no longer necessary because “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965. I did not agree with that assessment in 2013, and I certainly do not agree with it today.
In 2014, after numerous complaints about voter discrimination, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. The bill would, among other changes:
Require jurisdictions with a recent record of repeated Voting Rights Act violations to pre-clear election law changes.
Expand the current “bail-in” procedures, which allow courts to subject jurisdictions to preclearance.
Create a uniform requirement to inform voters of certain pending voting changes.
Enhance the ability of lawyers to halt discriminatory election measures before they can harm citizens.
Allow federal observers to monitor elections to ensure compliance with laws protecting the rights of Americans who speak limited English.
The House of Representatives refused to hold a hearing. The bill was re-introduced in 2015, but has not yet been acted upon, nor is it likely to be acted upon, given the “do nothing” attitude of the republican held Congress. In 2014, Americans experienced their first election without key Voting Rights Act protections in place — which led to voting discrimination across the country. The same is likely to occur in November when voters head to the polls to elect the next president.
In 2016, 17 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. The new laws range from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions. Those 17 states are: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Around the nation it is becoming more difficult for people to vote. In Arizona, voters waited up to five hours in line in order to cast ballots in the primary election. In South Carolina, people were given misleading information about the state’s voter ID law. And in Wisconsin, students were disenfranchised because polling places refused to accept their out-of-state IDs.
Just as racism is on the rise nationwide, but particularly in the southern states, voter discrimination follows suit. Many states now require a photo ID. I hear people saying “okay, what’s the big deal? Everybody has a driver’s license, right?” No, not everybody has a driver’s license. Many people are too poor to own a car, they ride the bus or walk to work, and have never needed to obtain a driver’s license. Every state does offer a non-driver photo ID, and the requirements for this vary from state to state, but there is a fee, and every state requires a visit to a government office, usually the same agency that issues driver’s licenses. Additionally, there are documentation requirements that may include: a valid driver’s license, a valid passport, a certified birth certificate, etc. In some states, the fee is as low as $5, but a quick check of Mississippi shows that the fee there is $17. Now, the same people who think everyone has a photo ID, probably think $17 is no big deal either. For a family struggling to buy food, trust me, $17 is a real big deal.
In addition to the photo ID requirement, some states are redrawing districts to dilute minority votes, and reducing early-voting hours which makes it harder for hourly workers who may not be able to take time off from work. The overall goal is to keep as many poor, Hispanic and African-Americans as possible away from the polls. Why? Because those are the people who are far more likely to vote for a democrat than a republican. Republicans typically support policies that are not advantageous to those groups, whereas democrats typically support programs to help the poor and support racial equality. Don’t believe me? Listen to Trump, then listen to Sanders.
We claim to have a democracy, a government where every adult has the right to cast his or her vote for the candidate he/she feels is best qualified to lead our nation, for members of Congress who will make the laws that we must all live under and abide by. On 07 January 1789, the first presidential election was held in the newly created United States. Up to that time, only white, male, adult property owners were eligible to vote in most states. Since then, a series of amendments to the constitution have been enacted to enable women, minorities, and any over the age of 18 to vote. But in the last few years, obstacles that were once removed are now being replaced. We cannot allow that to happen, and it is my belief that the good people of this nation will not allow that to happen, for if it does, then what is next? Will African-Americans accused of a crime necessarily face an all-white jury? Will restrooms, water fountains and public establishments once again display a sign that says “Whites Only”? Think about it.