Voter suppression is deeply rooted in American history. Keep that in mind.
Lauren Victoria Burke, writing in The Root offers that ”according to many experts who watch elections, the real controversy of 2016 is [sic] the hundreds of thousands of votes that were never cast in the first place because of widespread voter suppression.”
Thanks to John Roberts’ SCOTUS – in the Shelby v Holder decision of 2013 – and the flurry of voter ID laws passed thereafter, Republican efforts to disenfranchise vast swathes of the country have been largely very successful.
In the run up to 2012 Republicans told us, in both word and deed, what they were about to do: suppress the vote and steal an election. We didn’t believe them and we certainly didn’t respond aggressively enough. To our eternal peril.
We had forgotten that voter suppression is deeply rooted in American history.
For years, Republicans have been selling the notion that government should be small enough to drown in a bathtub and they have been singularly focused on making that possible. The reality of course, is that republicans want to drown the parts of government that serve people, but the parts that support corporations? Those parts they would sustain.
In the pursuit of their goals, since they can’t very well go full-on authoritarian and suspend all elections, Republicans have had to do one better: limit the eligible voting pool by means fair or foul. But so-called conservatives, which is to say, those wishing to conserve the status quo, have been doing such things since America was begun. This is not new.
Voter suppression is deeply rooted in American history.
“Even as the rising American electorate gains momentum, new regressive laws, rulings, and maneuvers are threatening voting rights without facing the strict scrutiny that would come with a constitutional right to vote”
Because the Constitution does not specifically enshrine the right to vote to all legal citizens of a certain age, in every era, efforts have had to be made to either secure the right to vote or to protect that right.
“While the franchise expanded during some moments and in some places, it contracted in others, depriving Americans of a right they had once held. Between 1790 and 1850 — the period when property requirements were being dropped — four Northern states disenfranchised African-American voters, and New Jersey halted a 17-year experiment permitting women to vote. During this same period, nine states passed laws excluding “paupers” from political rights.
Many of the late 19th- and early 20th-century laws operated not by excluding specific classes of citizens but by erecting procedural obstacles that were justified as measures to prevent fraud or corruption. It was to “preserve the purity of the ballot box”ii
That latter point, “erecting procedural obstacles…justified as measures to prevent fraud or corruption” is very much a part of today’s voter suppression play book. Replace the words ‘erecting procedural obstacles’ with the words ‘requiring voter ID’ and you get my point.
The History of Voter Suppression
Given that the Constitution does not explicitly indicate who may vote, each state may – entirely within its rights – make that determination, and write laws that include or exclude various groups. Consequently, any state that chooses so to do, may decide to remove individuals’ names from the voter rolls for any reason – reasonable or not – that they choose.
Even as some minorities were being welcomed into the body politic (property-owning Black males in 1870, women in 1920), others were simultaneously being excluded. In 1850 for example, when the 15th Amendment was ratified, all women, non-African-American minorities and many non-Christian religious groups were being denied access to the ballot box.
After Reconstruction, newly elected conservative Democrats began to write legislation that would have the effect of suppressing the black vote. These laws introduced literacy tests, poll taxes or in some cases "whites only" primaries in direct opposition to federal law. Attempts by would-be voters or candidates to break these rules would often lead to deadly consequences. These intimidation and suppression campaigns were so successful that only 3 percent of voting-age African-American southerners were registered to vote in 1940.
It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that literacy tests were explicitly banned. Poll taxes were banned a year later after the Supreme Court determined that they were unconstitutional.
But voter suppression didn't end in the 1960s. Still very much with us today are some of voter suppression’s best tactics: intimidation; disinformation; voter ID; reduction of early voting; removal of same day registration and the closure of polling stations. All of these are methods currently in use to reduce turnout and swing election outcomes.
Today, joining the family of suppression tactics, we now have Interstate CrossCheck, the mammoth voter purging system that allegedly removed 1.1 million voters from the rolls in 2016.
America learned in her formative days that the surest way to ensure the outcome of an election, to protect the status quo and those it benefitted most, was to exclude from consideration, the views of those who sought change. And so, in every generation different groups have had to fight for the granting and protection of their access to the ballot box. This current age is no different but we have become so accustomed to having the right to vote, that we have forgotten that access wasn’t always quite so broad or so easy. But we forget the history of suppression at our peril. By forgetting, we have allowed it to return and it has returned with a vengeance.
As a nation, we may claim that our foundational principles are “democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality”, but our history doesn’t bear this out. We have long claimed democracy as a foundational principle and then suppressed the voices of parts of the populace. We have long claimed equality as a foundational the principle of and then had unequal access to the ballot. These contradictions run through American history and we forget these contradictions at our peril.
In the next installment, we’ll take a closer look at Interstate CrossCheck, how it works, and where it may have worked in 2016, to subvert the will of the people.
About the Author - Elle Sagar
I am a strategic thinker and problem solver. I have a knack for seeing the heart of an issue, clearing away all the noise and nonsense and hopefully making cogent arguments that go to the central issue under consideration. Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try. That's a lyric from an Ella Fitzgerald song and from the songbook of my life.
Read Some of Elle's Other Articles...
- Some We Will Have to Carry - Jesse Williams and the BET Award's Acceptance Speech
- Faux-Gility: When White 'Fragility' Is Something Else Entirely
- Understanding White Privilege: A 5-Point Primer
- Let Me Count the Ways - Donald Trump's Delusional Pitch to Black Voters
- The Finish Line of Faith
- A Hedge of Protection
- Are We There Yet?