Voting in America…
The United States of America is a democracy. All citizens vote in elections to elect public officials, approve or disapprove taxes, and a wide range of other issues, depending upon the state in which the voter resides. Except that all citizens cannot vote. Historically, people of color were denied the right to vote, or even register to vote, for centuries.
Registering to vote in Mississippi in 1964 was most often impossible if you were black. Black citizens had to pass a literacy test and pay poll taxes in order to register and vote. The literacy test used in Mississippi in 1964 is nearly impossible to pass or even understand. One part of the process was to copy a section from the Mississippi Constitution onto a paper, and then give “a reasonable interpretation” of that section. There were over 200 sections of the Mississippi constitution, and the registrar’s decision as to whether or not your interpretation was reasonable was final and not appealable.
Other examples from Louisiana and Alabama are even more onerous. Some examples from the Louisiana test are the following:
1. Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence.
2. In the space below, write the word “noise” backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward.
3. Place a cross over the tenth letter in this line, a line under the first space in this sentence, and a circle around the last the in the second line of this sentence.
Not to be outdone, Alabama also had difficult, or impossible, literacy tests. Some examples are the following:
1. If election of the President becomes the duty of the U.S. House of Representatives and it fails to act, who becomes President and when?
2. How many states were required to approve the original Constitution in order for it to be in effect?
3. If it were proposed to join Alabama and Mississippi to form one state, what groups would have to vote in order for this to be done?
In addition to passing these tests in order to become a registered voter, that voter also had to pay a “poll tax” in order to be able to cast a vote. When I was trying to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964, a farmer showed me his twenty-year collection of poll tax receipts. He told me, “If I am ever able to register to vote, I have all my poll tax receipts.” [Prickett, C. (2015). Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer. Wordrunner Press, Petaluma, California.]
The purpose of these tests was to keep black citizens from registering to vote and voting. In spite of these barriers, black citizens tried again and again to register to vote. The 1965 Voting Rights Act stopped those practices.
Present Day Voting Barriers
If these laws and practices regulating voting in these southern states in the 1960s seems hard to imagine, here are some of the efforts to impose additional barriers to voting today.
- Setting voter registration deadlines far in advance of an election, ending same day registration. Florida did this.
- Requiring a photo ID, which disproportionately affects minority, handicapped, and elderly voters. Texas and many other states did this. In Indiana, twelve retired nuns were denied the right to vote [Editorial (May 6, 2008) “Voting Rights? Nun for You!” New York Times].
- Purging voter rolls. Georgia removed 98,000 persons from voter registration rolls (Boudreau, Abbie; Bronstein, Scott (October 26, 2008) CNN), if they had not voted recently.
- A felony conviction prevents a person from voting in many states. Some states and European countries allow incarcerated persons to vote. Even though incarcerated, these people still have a stake in our society.
- In many states, gerrymandering of voting districts are the norm rather than the exception. This practice dilutes the vote of citizens in those districts, which are drawn so minority votes are less significant than in the rest of the state. This is a slap in the face to “One Person, One Vote”, a basic tenant of our democracy.
Misinformation about voting precincts and places to vote, as well as the date on which an absentee ballot must be returned, were rampant in Wisconsin by a Republican group, “Americans for Prosperity”. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2013 that a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act had outlived its relevance, and struck it down. That made it possible for southern states to enact voter suppression laws, which they quickly did.
One of the most frightening developments in recent months is the emergence of President Trump’s appointment of Kris Kobach, Secretary of State of Kansas, to an advisory committee to investigate Trump’s unverified claim of widespread voter fraud, based on voter tallies that showed he did not win the popular vote. For Kobach, the question of citizenship, and who has a rightful claim to it, is at the heart of his lawsuits and legislation. But on May 11 Trump named him vice chairman of a new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission will examine “improper voter registrations and improper voting”, issues that Kobach, with his high-profile efforts in Kansas, almost single-handedly put on the Trump administration’s radar. (The New York Times, Ari Berman, June 13, 2017) Now that Trump has ended this travesty, it remains to be seen how other measures of voting suppression are curtailed. Don’t hold your breath!
Was the Popular Vote Fraudulent?
“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Donald Trump tweeted on Nov. 27. When asked in an ABC interview where Trump got that information, the president-elect’s adviser Kellyanne Conway named Kobach as a source of the unverified information. Three days later, after Kobach certified the results of the 2016 election in Kansas at the Capitol in Topeka, he told reporters, “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular-vote margin between him and Hillary Clinton.” (The New York Times, Ari Berman, June 13, 2017)
The Justice Department has thrown its weight behind Ohio in a high-profile legal fight over the state’s purging of infrequent voters from its election rolls, reversing the federal government’s position under the Obama administration that the practice was unlawful. But the Trump-era Justice Department argued that Congress wanted states to make sure voter registration rolls were up to date in order to curb the risk of fraud, and that Ohio’s approach was a permissible means of doing that. “Registrants are sent a notice because of that initial failure, but they are not removed unless they fail to respond and fail to vote for the additional period,” the new brief said. (The New York Times, Charlie Savage, August 8, 2017)
The right to vote is central to our democracy, but historically, minorities, the elderly, the poor, the handicapped, and many more have been disenfranchised, denied their right to participate in our democratic form of government, most often because their votes were seen as a threat to the political party in power.
The civil rights movement in the 1960s changed many entrenched practices, including discrimination in registering to vote and voting, public education, public accommodations, public libraries, and hiring practices. But the purveyors of those barriers are still active and still pursuing an agenda that runs counter to democratic ideals, mainly the right to vote. Everyone needs to be aware of this basic threat to our democracy and let their political representatives know, both state and federal, that we must take strong steps to ensure our democracy welcomes universal participation.