Voter turnout for the US Presidential Election 2020 was at its highest since 1900, with around two thirds of the electorate coming out in support of their candidate. Although a significant improvement, largely driven by the polarization of the electorate and the work of grassroots voting rights activists, the US still lags most Western democracies in voter turnout.
Voter suppression is as American as apple pie. Until the 20th Century, universal suffrage was not guaranteed, and being able to cast the ballot today is far from assured.
The purging of voter registration rolls and strict Voter ID laws that disproportionately affect minorities are some of the issues that drive down turnout in the US today.
Partisan gerrymandering takes away the voice of the minority party in some districts and state legislatures are free to enact laws reminiscent of Jim Crow in the first half of the 20th century.
It is not a surprise that electoral laws are one of the most contentious issues today in the US political discourse. To understand the current situation, it helps to look at the evolution of voting rights in America.
The Reconstruction South
Shortly after the American Civil War, a monumental amendment to the US Constitution was passed. In 1870 the 15th Amendment gave newly freed slaves the right to vote. During the reconstruction era black men could vote and many were even elected to state legislatures. Joseph Rainey, of South Carolina, was the first black man elected to the US House of Representatives in 1870. His lead was followed by black men across the south.
“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”—15th Amendment
In an 1877 deal between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans agreed to withdraw Federal troops from the South if Democrats conceded the Presidential Election. This resulted in the disenfranchisement of millions of black voters through what are known as the Jim Crow laws.
Poll taxes, or money due to be paid at the polls, were implemented along with difficult literacy tests. White voters circumvented these new laws through a clause where if one’s grandfather could vote, so could the individual, regardless of taxes and tests. This is the sinister origin of the phrase ‘grandfathered in’.
The Legacy of Jim Crow
In the 20th Century, the exodus of black families from the South to the North created congressional districts with black majorities. Black men were largely allowed to vote in the North and even hold office*, in the South they were kept away from the polls by aggressive enforcement of Jim Crow Laws. These laws extended beyond voting. The segregation of schools, restaurants and water fountains was commonplace in Southern states.
*It should be noted that communities in the North were most often ‘de facto’ segregated, not by law so much as by custom.
“Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a Southern Manifesto because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.”—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, ‘Give Us the Ballot’ Speech, May 17, 1957
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, civil rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Rosa Parks and Rev. Jesse Jackson (to name a small few) fought hard to end the legacy of Jim Crow. This culminated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The latter Act was one of the most sweeping pieces of legislation in US history. It specifically outlawed literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression. It banned discriminatory practices based on race or ethnicity and generally enforced the 15th Amendment.
In addition, the Act required states with a history of racist voting laws to undergo Congressional Scrutiny before changing their election laws. This was meant to keep states with a history of voter suppression in line with a federal standard by having Congress examine any new state election laws.
Repeal of the Voting Rights Act 2013
In what voting rights activists have seen as a major setback, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 that Congress could no longer scrutinize states based on what they saw as outdated data from the first half of the twentieth century.
“Congress — if it is to divide the states — must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It cannot rely simply on the past.”—Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
What followed was a deluge of new state electoral laws. Texas and North Carolina swiftly passed strict Voter ID laws. Many laws that may have been passed at the local level will not have been noticed. Restrictive voter laws were passed in states with a history of voter suppression as well as some swing states—states that largely determine Presidential elections.
A Timeline of Voter Suppression in the United States
A Silver Lining
In 2020 an extremely divisive election coincided with the worst pandemic in modern history. Due to the pandemic, use of drop box ballot voting and mail-in voting swelled, making it easier to vote than ever before.
In a country divided, voters needed their voices to be heard—they braved excruciatingly long lines and fears of contracting coronavirus, to turn out en masse to the polls.
The victory was short lived, however. Currently, at least 47 State legislatures have proposed new laws that activists say infringe on voting rights. This, coupled with the systematic closure of polling places and a fierce opposition to mail-in voting, could be disastrous for voter’s rights for decades to come.
According to The Brennan Center for Justice at least 47 States have proposed laws that would restrict voter rights, several of these laws are moving through state legislatures
Georgia: A Case Study
In 2018 activist State Congresswoman Stacey Abrams (D) lost a gubernatorial election to Georgia’s then Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R). Under Kemp’s tenure as Secretary of State, at least 1.4 million eligible voters were stricken from the electoral roles in the years leading up to the 2018 election. Brian Kemp won the election and became the Governor of Georgia.
In the years that followed, Stacey Abrams focused her attention on voting rights. In Georgia, through grassroots tactics such as voter registration drives, the organizations she has worked with have been credited with helping register at least 800,000 new voters for the 2020 Presidential and Senate elections. Joe Biden won Georgia by around 13,000 votes.
Again, this success has been short lived. The Georgia State Legislature has passed new laws which restrict early Sunday voting (a time when many African American families vote), ban automatic voter registration, remove drop boxes for ballots, and introduce new voter ID requirements. All these measures are thought to disproportionately affect minority voters.
“We know that their targets are Black voters…These notes are dripping in the blood of Jim Crow.”— Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter
HR1: A Silver Bullet?
On March 3, the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 1, a sweeping voting rights, ethics, and anti-corruption bill. HR1, otherwise known as the For the People Act, would create National standards for elections, making it difficult for states to enact their own election laws that could result in voter suppression. The bill has provisions for mandatory early voting, mail in voting, and automatic voter registration. Studies have shown that it could help to increase voter turnout, especially among minority voters.
One of the most significant provisions of HR1 does not directly deal with voter’s rights. The bill includes provisions to make redistricting of congressional districts the work of independent commissions, as opposed to the state legislatures. This is particularly important as both Democrats and Republicans are known to gerrymander Congressional Districts to secure friendly voting blocs in their own districts.
This map of Ohio’s congressional districts shows how state legislatures use redistricting to control election outcomes. Ohio is considered one of the most gerrymandered states.
The passage of HR1, however, is far from certain. There is fierce opposition from Republicans with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell previously labeling HR1 the “Democrat Politician Protection Act”. With the changing demographics and ideology of America’s Population, Republicans are worried that a larger turnout, may mean more votes for Democrats.
The Senate filibuster allows the Senate Minority to block legislation by requiring 60 votes in the Senate as opposed to a simple Majority. Any attempt, therefore, to pass HR1 would also need to target the filibuster. While many Senate Democrats are calling for an abolition of the filibuster, more conservative Democrats tend to point out that while they were the minority, Democrats relied on the filibuster to block Republican legislation.
President Joe Biden has previously stated that were HR1 to pass the Senate, he would sign it into law.
Why It Matters
America, the ‘foremost’ democracy in the world, has a lower voter participation rate than many other Western Democracies. It is one of the only countries where people stand in line for hours to vote. Voters struggle to stay registered and gerrymandered districts cast doubt onto how much individual votes matter. Voting is the foundation of America, a sacred and fundamental right. In 2020 The Economist’s Democracy Index labelled the United States as a “flawed democracy.” Reforming voter rights is not only a moral imperative, but also necessary for America to reclaim its role as a beacon for democracy around the world.