The Voting Rights Act Today

by Pamela Zuber

What Is the Voting Rights Act and Its Legacy?

August 6, 2018 marked the fifty-third anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson signed this legislation in the hopes that it would end discriminatory practices that made it difficult for African Americans and other people to vote.

As idealistic as it was, the legislation did not stop such difficulties. Like other laws, the Voting Rights Act has produced mixed results.

But, given recent developments, it appears that the legislation has done more good than harm. Enforcing its measures has supported the voting efforts of many people, while suppressing its measures has had the opposite effect.

America-themed converse sneakers depict the word "VOTE"
Source: Theresa Thompson, Creative Commons

What Is the History Behind the Voting Rights Act?

Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stated that 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.”

But, for decades, authorities still found ways to disenfranchise African Americans, immigrants, and the poor. They issued literacy tests under the pretense that only the educated should allowed to vote. They levied poll taxes that charged people fees to vote. U.S. women, of course, faced blatant discrimination, too, since they did not have the right to vote until 1920.

Protests against disenfranchisement and other violations of human and civil rights, especially in the 1960s, shone spotlights on these injustices. This publicity sometimes came at great costs to the participants.

Protesters sometimes needed medical care due to the brutal treatment they received at the hands of police or civilian vigilantes. Vicious beatings, attacks from police dogs, blasts from fire hoses, and death threats were common tactics used against the protesters.

Some attacks were even worse. Some people lynched or shot protesters who questioned the status quo.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner traveled to Mississippi in June, 1964 to advocate for educational and voting opportunities for African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) murdered them. The KKK members did not face criminal prosecution for the crime at the time.

Decades later, in 2005, a local newspaper investigation produced evidence that helped lead to the conviction of a local Klansman. But, even then, justice was muted, since the Klansman’s conviction was on charges of manslaughter, not murder.

People thus used both discriminatory legislation and outright illegal intimidation to prevent African Americans from voting. The Voting Rights Act aimed to end these tactics.

What Did the Voting Rights Act Do?

Partly, at least for a time. The Voting Rights Act significantly increased the number of African American voters in some areas. In Mississippi, six percent of African Americans voted in 1964. Just five years later, sixty-nine percent of African Americans voted in Mississippi.

Because of the Voting Rights Act, states and local governments are no longer able to issue tests that restrict some people from voting. It is no longer legal for authorities to intimidate people physically, mentally, or financially in order to prevent them from participating in government affairs.

To enforce the act, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act created a coverage formula to determine if jurisdictions complied with the act. As part of this formula, the federal government monitored jurisdictions that had discriminated against voters in the past.

The formula required that jurisdictions

  • Suspend literary tests or other tests used to determine whether people were eligible to vote.
  • Submit themselves to review by the U.S. attorney general or Washington DC’s district court if the jurisdictions made voting-related changes.
  • Agree to be under the review of federal examiners who would prepare lists of eligible voters.
  • Work with federal observers in jurisdictions with federal examiners.
  • Allow people who have attended foreign-language elementary schools to vote.
  • Provide information and voting opportunities for non-English speakers.

Many of the stipulations in the coverage formula required federal oversight if jurisdictions wanted to change election procedures or laws, a process known as preclearance. Preclearance was the law of the land for decades, but it was not without its criticism.

The criticism prompted many challenges and lawsuits, which culminated in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder. This decision invalidated the coverage formula and said that the U.S. Congress could create new coverage formulas, but Congress has not done so.

What Do Voting Rights Look Like Today?

Less oversight has eroded the Voting Rights Act and voters’ rights in general. Despite this legislation and the gains it brought, people are finding an increasing number of barriers to voting.

A growing number of jurisdictions have added requirements for voting or are asking voters to consider such requirements:

  • Many states require people to possess specific forms of identification, such as driver’s licenses, in order to vote. Many older or disabled adults do not have such identification, so it can make it difficult for them to register to vote.
  • Alabama closed thirty-one offices that issued driver’s licenses in 2015 even though the state had strict laws that required voters to show identification, such as driver’s licenses, in order to vote. Many of the offices were located in areas with high African American populations and were reopened due to criticism.
  • North Carolina residents will vote in November 2018 to determine if the state should add an amendment to the state constitution stating that voters will need photo identification to vote in future elections. A federal court struck down a similar North Carolina law in 2016.
  • New Hampshire passed a 2018 law that required people to be permanent full-time residents if they wanted to vote in the state.
  • Wisconsin residents at a 2018 hearing testified that changes in their voting districts had spread Democratic Party voters across such a large geographic area that their votes were rendered less powerful. Critics also claim that the state has excessively strict voter ID laws that disproportionately affect Democratic Party and African American voters.

Wisconsin residents voted for Republican Party candidate Donald Trump over Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin helped him win the Electoral College and the presidency.

If Wisconsin’s Democratic Party voters were in fact suppressed, voter suppression could have decided the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Voter suppression thus could have wide-ranging consequences.

After being shot, a black American man sprawls on the ground
Source: Cliff, Creative Commons

Why Are Voting Rights Important?

As the case of Wisconsin indicates, changing the voting districts can muffle citizens’ voices – and those are people who are allowed to register and cast votes. Voter suppression laws also make it difficult for people to even register to vote in the first place.

But, voting is a fundamental tool of citizenship. It enables people to express their opinions through their ballots. In the words of Ajanet Rountree, voting invites people to join the “political and social narrative.”

If people cannot vote, they cannot join this discussion. If disabled people lack certain types of photo IDs in states that require such IDs, or if they are not able to arrange transportation to the polling places, they will be unable vote or even to register to vote.

The disabled people might miss opportunities to vote for candidates or issues that have direct bearing on their lives. For example, they might miss the opportunity to vote for a candidate who consistently votes in favor of expanded Medicaid coverage.

The suppressed voters might rely on Medicaid to pay for their considerable medical expenses. But, if they do not have adequate Medicaid coverage, they could experience problems with their physical and mental health. This lack of Medicaid coverage could even affect the people’s finances and living situations if their rent/mortgage money has to be reallocated to pay for their rising medical costs. Not being able to vote could thus directly impact people in several ways.

Proponents of strict ID laws say that the requirements can help prevent voter fraud. But, observers note that voter fraud appears to be more common among people who use absentee ballots, people who are predominantly white. ID requirements do not typically address absentee ballots.

Voter identification laws disproportionately affect nonwhite voters. Writing in Newsweek, Mirren Gidda noted that “the turnout gaps between white and ethnic minority voters are far higher in states where people must show ID during or after voting.”

Others commentators echo these findings. “[R]esearchers found that strict ID laws doubled the turnout gap between whites and Latinos in the general elections, and almost doubled the white-black turnout gap in primary elections,” wrote Vann R. Newkirk II in The Atlantic.

Because of this disparity, organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have worked to challenge discriminatory laws and enforce the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The NAACP sued Alabama after the closure of many driver’s license offices and was active in the Shelby County v. Holder case.

Organizations such as Let America Vote are hoping to invite more people to join the civic discussion. The organization includes information about registering to vote and voter guides to different elections. It supports candidates in different states who have worked to uphold voter rights.

The NAACP and Let America Vote join other organizations that promote enfranchisement. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website includes a wealth of information about its advocacy and other efforts to promote voting rights.

Voter suppression currently exists. But, if we utilize the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other efforts that support voting, we can work to restore and enforce this fundamental right of democracy.

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor interested in current events, history, health, business, and a wide variety of other topics.

Iron Jawed Angels: The Persistence Grit of Suffragettes

a picture of an "I Voted" sticker
Day 36/366…I voted. Source: Denise Cross, Creative Commons

Enfranchisement is the act of participating in the political process, namely through voting. It is the acknowledgement and acceptance of citizenship. Sociologist T.H. Marshall defines citizenship as the status a person enjoys as a full member of a community. Citizenship participation in the community has three components that function as rights and duties: civil, political, and social. First, civil citizenship encompasses all individual freedoms—the inalienable rights given to each human being. Second, political citizenship afford the right to participate in the political process, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and/or ability. Lastly, social citizenship provides the right for an adequate standard of living. Full participation in a community, through the act of enfranchisement, has been a difficult and tenuous process for half of humanity: women.

Women have sought to gain full citizenship status for centuries. While this blog briefly focuses on the women’s suffrage movements in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), the breath of the women’s rights movement extends to and finds mirroring throughout Europe and in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and parts of South America and Africa according to Dolton. She reminds that women’s movements are grassroots operations, which strike at the heart of hegemonic institutional and cultural systems. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ascribes the right for everyone to take part in their country’s government with equal access to public service, and the expression of the collective will through free and equal voting. In other words, while voting is a method utilized in some nation-states, an understanding of the variations in governmental form is imperative.

The US and UK Suffragette Movements

American women were growing dissatisfied with their lack of position and subsequent silence within the public sphere. The outgrowth of this dissatisfaction was the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The topic of voting was a part of the discussion, as was divorce and martial rape. Despite economic and social progress during the 19th century, including Wyoming becoming the first state to extend voting rights to women, the failure to grant voting rights in all states left women undeterred. English women were dissatisfied also but seemingly protested quietly until the late 1890s.

Emmeline Pankhurst initiated the UK suffragist movement in 1898, following the death of her husband. By 1903, she began the Women’s Social and Political Union and recruited her daughter, Christabel, and cultivated an alliance with the Independent Labour Party. The outbreak of WW1 brought about the suspension of politics; yet, the enfranchisement of women, under 30 who met a minimum set of requirements, occurred in 1918. Full enfranchisement for all persons over 21 took place in 1928.

August 18, 1920

Two years following the enfranchisement in the UK, the long-awaited battle for women’s suffrage in the US ended with the passage of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920. The amendment afforded women the right to vote in the US. The victory secured the right to vote for some but not all.

Join Girlsprings and us tomorrow at 6pm in the Hill Student Center Alumni Theater for the film screening of “Iron Jawed Angels”. The screening and discussion is free and open to the public.

 

How We’ve Failed Puerto Rico

In the aftermath of a horrifying hurricane season, Puerto Rico remains in a state of devastation. The contrast between the situation in Puerto Rico and that of post-Irma Florida or post-Harvey Texas is shocking. If those affected in Puerto Rico are American citizens, why have they been treated as second-class outsiders? Many may treat them as such because public knowledge on the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is severely lacking. A study conducted by USA Today and Suffolk University reported that less than half of respondents believed that Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth. Though people born in Puerto Rico are just as American as those in the states, U.S. has continually deprived Puerto Rico and its citizens of economic and political livelihood. The depth of the current devastation is just one symptom of a long history of abusing Puerto Rican human rights and economic wellbeing.  In this blog, we will investigate how these abuses came to be, why they still occur, and how we can change them.

The American flag, Puerto Rican flag, and Spanish flag are shown flying in front of a blue sky.
Spanish flag, PR flag, USA flag. Source: Oscar Rohena. Creative Commons.

“Is Puerto Rico Part Of Us?”

The title of this section is the first Google auto-completed search that pops up after typing, “is Puerto Rico?” When one considers the level of pride and patriotism that typically comes with being an American citizen, it seems shocking that so many are unaware of what comprises American citizenship. The answer to the question is yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Puerto Rico is not a state, it is a Commonwealth of the United States. Commonwealth status means that the island has local autonomy, though the ultimate source of governance is U.S. Congress. Puerto Rico has its own set of locally elected officials, including a bicameral legislature and a governor (the highest office available in Puerto Rico). The island also has its own constitution. Puerto Rico was not always American territory; the Spanish colonized the island for nearly four hundred years. The United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. The territory was acquired with the intention of using Puerto Rico as a market for excess goods and as a naval base; to this end, military rule was instituted once the U.S. gained control but shortly abandoned in 1900.  In 1917, Puerto Rican rights began to expand as federal law gave U.S. citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico. Per the Jones Act of 1917, Puerto Ricans serve in the military, are free to travel the United States, and use U.S. postal service. However, they are not allowed to vote in U.S. elections. The U.S. Congress has the power to veto or amend legislation passed by the local government, even though Puerto Ricans have no input in congressional elections. This disenfranchisement is both political and economic; nearly half of all residents of Puerto Rico live in poverty. The unemployment rate is nearly double the United States’. In addition to the level of economic crisis for individuals, Puerto Rico has accumulated seventy billion dollars of debt. To pay for this, the local government has chosen to close schools, cut health care and transportation budgets, and increase sales taxes. These policy decisions make it even more difficult for Puerto Ricans to obtain proper education and healthcare — both of which are human rights. Spanish colonization is partially responsible for allowing islanders to suffer from mass poverty while continually using the island to extract goods for the benefit of Spain. However, America did not act in its full capacity to bring prosperity to Puerto Rico, and has continued to exploit the island and its people.

 

Puerto Rican protesters hold a sign protesting government corruption.
El Pueblo Reclama. Source: Oscar Rohena. Creative Commons.

How is America Responsible?

Decades of political and economic marginalization has taken its toll. Over the years, the United States has treated Puerto Rico as “little more than a military base and an economic enclave.” Over 70% of net domestic income generated in Puerto Rico ends up leaving the island due to the economic structure instituted by the U.S. to extract surplus (Committee for Human Rights in Puerto Rico). This makes it impossible for families to generate and accumulate wealth. Puerto Rico as a whole is forced to spend huge amounts of money on incredibly high transportation costs due to maritime law. The law states that all commercial transport must be executed using United States transport—the most expensive transport system in the world. These costs ensure that the cost of Puerto Rican exported goods are substantially higher than they would otherwise be, making their products much less competitive in the international market. Additionally, the United States government is responsible for health crises through years of bombing and/or military testing. Viques, one of the islands within the Puerto Rican territory, reports residents having “increased rates of cancers, asthma, diabetes, heart abnormalities, hypertension, skin conditions, and birth defects” (Collado). To make this issue even worse, the island suffers from widespread inaccessibility to healthcare. Even if residents had the money to afford medical care, there is an incredible shortage of medical professionals; doctors leave the island for a more prosperous future at a rate of one per day. Not only do these circumstances violate Puerto Rican citizens’ human right to an adequate standard of living (UDHR Article 25), but this also makes it much more difficult for affected citizens to participate economically, socially, and politically. All of these compounding factors – economic marginalization, environmental destruction, political disenfranchisement – have created a perfect storm that makes Puerto Rico more vulnerable than ever. Hurricane Maria was able to decimate the island because of the actions of the United States – the economic structure and historical exploitation made Puerto Rico unable to maintain basic infrastructure that would protect them from hurricane damage or allow them to rebuild. This is why the historical legacy of American actions towards Puerto Rico matter, and why our current administration’s dismissal of Puerto Rican suffering is such a critical issue. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria is not a one-time occurrence.  Puerto Rico has been repeatedly struck by natural and manmade disasters that have impeded its progress, and many of these are caused or exacerbated by the U.S. The United States has failed miserably in protecting the rights of American citizens of Puerto Rico. We, as fellow Americans, should be held responsible in upholding those rights.

 

Three people hold signs at a protest supporting Puerto Rico.
4N3A5376. Source: Working Families Party, Creative Commons.

What Can We Do?

As always, we first must investigate our own perceptions of Puerto Rico as well as our peers’. If nearly half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, it is entirely possible that many people you know may believe similarly. Though human rights should be protected regardless of citizenship, America often influences the global standard of action. We, as Americans, have a duty to protect our fellow citizens from human rights abuses before we can take a wider lens in our international scope. To address current issues of disaster relief, the Unidos por Puerto Rico fund allows individuals to send money directly to relief efforts. In the long term, it is essential to start raising expectations for Puerto Rico as well as expectations of how America interacts with the island. Our current administration claims that Puerto Rico’s financial crisis and poor infrastructure are issues “largely of their own making.” This is flatly untrue. While from the outside it may seem that Puerto Rico has created its own dire situation, the most damaging factors would have never been in play without the role of the United States. To ensure proper education and healthcare are provided to the 3.4 million American citizens on the island, Puerto Rico no longer needs to be viewed as an outside entity responsible for solving its own problems. There are multiple ways to solve this. One may be addressing the issue of Puerto Rican statehood. The most recent referendum on Puerto Rican statehood found that 97% of voters wanted to obtain statehood. However, this has no significant impact on the decisions of Congress, because legislators have no direct accountability to Puerto Rico. Therefore, American citizens who have power over their legislators through their constituency must make their voices heard in order to protect our voiceless counterparts in Puerto Rico.