I still remember learning in an undergraduate American politics class who votes in U.S. elections: white, middle class, educated, older, women. Of course, that is not an accurate representation of the U.S. voting public, but it helps one remember what parts of the population are more likely to vote. Women are more likely to vote than men, white people are more likely to vote than minorities and so on. It also highlights a particular issue in American democracy, disenfranchised minority groups are less likely to vote.
Most of the issue of minority voting is political apathy, minorities feel their representational share is unlikely to change and thus their vote will not make a difference. In recent years, an American institution returned: voter suppression.
A Brief History Of Voter Suppression
In 1870, the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, stating,
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Despite what seems to be very clear language, states found various ways to prevent newly freed slaves from exercising this constitutional right. Poll taxes, literary tests, and grandfather clauses were initially upheld by the U.S. supreme court as fully constitutional due to their seemingly race neutral nature.
In reality these measures were directly aimed at African Americans in order to prevent them from voting. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the Supreme court began to consider the 15th amendment more widely and strike down limitations on voting that disproportionately affected minorities.
But many measures, such as the poll tax remained until the 1960’s when the 24th Amendment was passed explicitly to ban them. Shortly after the 24th amendment, President Lyndon Johnson signed the voting rights act of 1965. This act greatly expanded the protection for minority voters by placing federal oversight over jurisdictions that had historically discriminated in voting.
Over the next few decades, African American voters began to register to vote in the south, leading to the first African American elected officials from those states since shortly after the Civil War. This was definite progress.
But in 2013 an enormous blow was struck to civil rights by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court. In Shelby v. Holder, the court eliminated the requirement that historically discriminatory jurisdictions get pre-approval to enact voting changes. From that decision stems the problem America now faces.
The Aftermath of Shelby v. Holder
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, states across the nation enacted discriminatory laws that suppressed the vote of minorities. It is no secret that minorities in the U.S. lean heavily towards the Democratic party, giving considerable motive for Republican lawmakers to attempt to suppress their votes.
One of the most widespread attempts at voter suppression is the use of voter I.D. laws, requiring a photo I.D. in order to register, receive a ballot, or actually vote. In states that enacted a voter I.D. law, minorities are much less likely to have a valid photo I.D. This is partly because minorities are more likely to live in urban areas and use public transportation, thus not needing one of the most common American forms of identification, a driver’s license.
The map above shows that voter I.D. laws are concentrated in traditionally Republican held states. Republican legislatures have gone beyond voter I.D. laws, however, and has stepped into territory that is blatantly aimed at minority voters.
The Worst Offenders
Two states top the list for doing the most to suppress minority votes, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Both states enacted voter I.D. laws following the Shelby v. Holder decision, and despite North Carolina having its statewide “monster” law struck down, counties, which run elections fairly independently in the U.S., were able to enact most of the provisions anyway.
Fairly telling evidence that the laws were intentionally aimed at African Americans abound. A study in 2005 found that nearly half of African Americans in Milwaukee Wisconsin did not have a form of I.D. considered valid by the new law. While the numbers may have improved since then, it is most likely that minority communities are vastly more affected by the voter I.D. law than whites. Even more telling, the lack of evidence that any noticeable amount of voter fraud even exists. Because of the new voter I.D. law an estimated 300,000 Wisconsonians did not have the proper I.D. to vote in the 2016 election in this valuable swing state, of course, the effected were disproportionately African American and Hispanic.
In North Carolina, however, the evidence for intentional discrimination is disgustingly clear. Republican leaders sought out voting statistics by race and proceeded to directly cut those methods and times of voting most used by minorities. The racial intent of their law was so clear that the court said that its provisions, “target African Americans with almost surgical precision”. By ending early voting, Sunday voting, and limiting the number of voting locations, Republicans sought to reduce African American voting numbers, and succeeded.
Where The Country Is Headed.
With Republicans dominating government at all levels after the 2016 election, there is little hope of change for the near future. Republicans tout voter I.D. laws as a necessary measure to curb the nonexistent voter fraud issue. They downplay the issue of voter suppression, insisting that they are not targeting specific races, but claim budget cuts, or eliminating waste, are reasons for limiting early voting and other methods.
For now, we exist in a sort of philosophical grey area. If much of the voting population is kept from acting upon their rights, is our political system valid? Martin Luther King said when he was fighting for the right to vote in the 60’s that “a right delayed is a right denied.”
Do these actions not constitute a further delay of the full participation of African Americans and others? Minorities in this country have fought long and hard to be able to vote, and the election of 2016 shows that we have taken a step backward. How long will they have to wait until they are fully and freely able to participate in the political system? How can an individual be subjected to the laws of a society that goes out of its way to disenfranchise that individual?
These voter suppression tactics are a black mark on the entire American society. By not raising voices loud enough, we have allowed these transgressions to go unpunished. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have been fighting relentlessly to pass a new voting rights act to fix the damage done by Shelby v. Holder, but as of yet it has not passed. It is seemingly once again up to groups like the ACLU and their supporters to do all they can in fighting for the rights of American citizens.