To the uninitiated, it might seem like the United States of America has guaranteed the right to vote for over two centuries. The right to vote is the foundation of democratic government, and America is proud of its status as the world’s oldest democracy. But the right to vote has never been that simple. In 1776, only white, land-owning, Protestant men could vote. In the late 1700s, the right extended to white Protestant men who do not own land. In the 1820s, white men of any religion became eligible to vote. For the next century, we saw a slow evolution of voting rights, as the vote became progressively more available to more groups of people.
In 1870, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, all male citizens, regardless of race, could vote. Fifty years later, with the Nineteenth Amendment, women were afforded the same right. Four years after that, Native Americans finally gained the right to vote with the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. In 1943, people of Chinese descent become eligible for citizenship. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, various ethnic groups are afforded the right to citizenship and the right to vote as states begin to implement restrictions on their ability to do so.
What’s the point of this history lesson? It’s important for Americans to recognize that the right to vote is not cut and dried. It is not simple. We cannot say that women gained the right to vote in 1920 when Native women could not vote until 1924, and first-generation Japanese women could not vote until 1952. We cannot say that all men have been able to vote since 1870, when Filipino men were not granted citizenship until 1946. We cannot say that all American citizens have been able to vote since 1965, when disabled people were not guaranteed access to their polling places until the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Or when over six million citizens are denied their voting rights because of their criminal history. The right to vote has never been guaranteed to all Americans, so the full promise of democracy has never been realized.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of legislation that seemed to finally guarantee the right so long deferred. Not only did all citizens, regardless of demographic group, legally have the right to vote, but the VRA banned all election practices that would hinder certain racial groups from voting. In a key provision, areas with a history of voter discrimination were required to clear all changes to election law with the federal government.
Voting underwent a golden age — for eight whole years. In 1974, the Supreme Court declared that states had the right to bar felons from voting. The war on voting obtained new tactics for the modern age. Outright discrimination on the basis of race was forbidden, so politicians implemented policies that discriminated on the basis of race while appearing to discriminate for other reasons entirely. Last century, the tactics included poll taxes and voter tests. This century, the tactics revolve around voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement. Black voters are 50 percent more likely than white voters to not have a form of ID that would satisfy stringent voter ID laws.
Thanks to a racist judicial system, Black people are five times more likely than white people to be convicted of a felony. In Kentucky, one quarter of Black people are barred from voting because of a felony conviction. 10% of Floridian adults are barred from voting — for Black people, the rate is twice that high — making a November ballot measure that would restore the right to vote for felons an item to watch. It is undeniable that this disenfranchisement is affecting the outcome of elections.
The 2016 general election was the first Presidential election since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, when the Supreme Court struck the provision requiring certain states to have changes to election law approved by the federal government. The court believed, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, that the history of voting discrimination was so far in the past that it no longer affects our modern age. 14 states immediately implemented new, restrictive voting laws. These new voting laws may have given us President Donald Trump. In Wisconsin, 45,000 people were prevented from voting because of the new law. Trump won Wisconsin by 23,000 votes.
The right to vote is the unanswered project of our nation. It is the unfulfilled promise without which our democracy will forever go unrealized. It is the civil rights issue of our time, because it is the civil rights issue of the past 250 years, continually deferred. It is also, without a doubt, the key to a better future for the majority of Americans. Currently, our country is held hostage by an angry minority of white Republicans who fear their decreasing power and hegemony. Undisputed rulers for centuries, they fear becoming outnumbered — because they are.
It has already happened. It is not their country, as they believe. It is all of ours. Democrats debate on how best to win back angry white voters, but the racial polarization is almost complete. White people have been fleeing the Democratic Party ever since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when Democrats decided to embrace it and Republicans decided to fight it. The parties have become more divided on the basis of race — both in policy and in demographic makeup — ever since. The good news is that the Democratic Party doesn’t need to win back white voters. It simply needs to ensure that people of color have the right to vote. Election victories like the special election in Alabama that propelled Doug Jones to the Senate were made possible because of Black voters, not white ones.
The 2000 Presidential election came down to 537 votes in Florida. 600,000 Floridians had completed their prison sentences but were still barred from voting. If Black people were not denied the right to vote based off of felony convictions, Al Gore would have become President instead of George W. Bush. The Iraq War would never have happened. We might have changed our climate policies in time to stop irreversible climate change. The 2016 Presidential election came down to 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Approximately one million people were kept from voting because of voter ID laws and restrictive voting policies that cause long lines at the polls and difficulty registering, according to MIT political scientist Charles Stewart.
In an election where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and the vast majority of the vote from people of color — and people of color are those most likely to have their vote impeded — a million more votes would have certainly tipped the election. Without restrictive voting laws, we would have a President Hillary Clinton. There would be no Muslim Ban or tax cut for the ultra-rich. DACA and CHIP would be safe. The Wall would never be built. If all Americans truly had the right to vote regardless of skin color, we would have had Democratic presidents for the past two decades. That fact isn’t lost on Republicans. They know they aren’t a majority of voters in America, so they will do what they have always done — limit people who wouldn’t vote for them from the polls. Voting rights is the civil rights issue America has always promised but never delivered, and it is the requirement for a progressive future in this country.
Photo: Mrs. Gemstone/Creative Commons