A brief history of voting rights

by TIMOTHY BRAATZ
| October 8, 2020 1:00 AM

U.S. history is marked by a struggle between those who want full democracy and those who don’t, between those who uphold the principle of equal political participation and those who wish to reserve power for themselves by excluding others.

The Constitution creators, led by slaveowners George Washington and James Madison, opposed full democracy. Under the original Constitution, state legislatures decided who could vote, and this usually meant adult white males who met a wealth requirement—approximately fifteen percent of the entire population in 1790.

This privileged Fifteen Percent could vote for the Electoral College, and those 132 Electors freely chose the president and vice president. The Fifteen Percent could also vote for congressional representatives but not for senators, who were chosen by state legislators. There wasn’t much democracy in the early USA.

The expansion of suffrage (the right to vote) was a political battle. State legislatures gradually eliminated wealth requirements. During the Civil War, Republican state lawmakers allowed Union soldiers to vote by mail. After the abolition of slavery, Republicans arranged the 15th Amendment (1869), which banned racial discrimination in voting rights. In response, Southern Democrats employed terrorism, poll taxes, and literacy tests to suppress black male suffrage.

The first great U.S. democratic movement was for women rights. Women began demanding suffrage in the 1840s but didn’t make significant gains until the early twentieth century. Suffragettes, as they were known, developed two strategies: 1) convince state legislatures to approve women’s suffrage, and 2) push for a constitutional amendment.

In 1917, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the National Woman’s Party organized protests outside the White House. These “Silent Sentinels” were beaten, arrested, and tortured for the crime of demanding democracy. After eight decades of struggle, the women’s rights movement finally convinced enough white male legislators to pass the 19th Amendment (1920), which banned gender discrimination in voting rights.

The second great democratic movement was for African American civil rights. In 1955-68, blacks held nonviolent marches, boycotts, and sit-ins. Their primary demands were desegregation and voting rights. Septima Clark, Dorothy Cotton, and other courageous women organized the Citizenship Education Program, which taught Southern blacks the importance of civic engagement and prepared them for voter registration.

White supremacists, including state governors, lawmen, and KKK members, responded with arrests, beatings, and murders. In Selma, Alabama state troopers attacked a nonviolent voting rights march led by John Lewis. The brutality of the televised assault moved President Lyndon Johnson and Northern congressmen from both parties to support new legislation.

The Voting Rights Act (1965) eliminated poll taxes and voter literacy tests and gave federal officials the authority to oversee voter registration in counties with a history of voter suppression. Millions of Southern blacks soon voted for the first time. In response, Southern white supremacists gradually ended their Democratic loyalty and became Republicans.

Another voter denial practice is felony disenfranchisement. To circumvent the 15th Amendment, Southern whites passed criminal laws designed to target blacks, then revoked voting rights for anyone convicted of a felony. Today, felony disenfranchisement prevents 6.1 million citizens from voting—one out of every forty adults—including 3.1 million community members who have paid their “debt to society.” Because racial minorities and poor folks are disproportionately charged with felonies, they have less political voice—just like in 1790.

In 2013, the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act. This allowed Republican-controlled state governments to craft voting laws that discriminate against black communities, which generally support Democratic candidates. These racist tactics include eliminating voting stations, shortening voting hours, cutting back on early voting, redrawing district lines, and “scrubbing” voter rolls. The result: black voters often have to travel long distances and stand in long lines and many are denied the opportunity to vote.

This may not concern Idahoans, but voter suppression in the South and Midwest has changed the outcome of many senatorial and several presidential elections. Global studies of fair elections typically place the USA in the second-rate category of “flawed democracy.” The first tier—“full democracy”—includes most Western European countries, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea.

Today, due to pandemic, many states are encouraging vote by mail. Absentee voting has a long history with no evidence of fraud. But the postmaster general has recently ordered the removal of many sorting machines and dropboxes, causing delays in mail delivery. Voting rights advocates are currently suing in federal court to reverse these suspicious changes until after the election. Meanwhile, the president has indicated that he won’t accept an electoral loss, wants to “get rid of ballots,” and intends to use the Supreme Court to ensure his reelection.

The Boundary County Human Rights Task Force reminds you that universal and equal suffrage is a human right and encourages you to support free and fair elections, no matter the political outcome.

Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence. He encourages you to research “voter suppression” online.