History of US Voting Rights

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A series of articles by Pat Jensen about how voting rights developed

1.  The League of Women Voters has long had a position that “voting is a fundamental citizen right that must be guaranteed”.   After all, the League itself grew out of the women’s suffrage movement and from the beginning its leaders knew the value of the right to vote.

This year the Johnson County League has chosen to focus on voting rights, both to educate members and others on the history and importance of the vote and to understand the need to advocate when necessary to protect the right to vote.

In October, Law Professor Todd Pettys spoke on “Voting Rights and the Constitution: Battles Past and Present”.  He reviewed how the Constitution tells us who can vote, both through its Articles and Amendments.  Originally, as most all are aware, the vote was confined to white male property owners.  Following the Civil War, the 14th (equal protection) and 15th Constitutional Amendments were passed.  The 15th, giving the vote to black males reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 

            The 19th Constitutional Amendment, passed in 1920, gave women the vote; the 23rd in 1961 gave citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote for President and Vice-President; the 24th in 1964 prohibited the requirement of payment of poll taxes; and the 26th in 1971 gave the vote to 18 year olds.

In addition to the Constitution and its amendments, legislation has been passed over the years.  But to understand a lot of what came later, we need to look at what happened to those black male voters in the South.

Obviously, problems developed. Initially black men rushed to register to vote. In the former Confederate States new black citizens comprised outright or near majorities of the eligible voting population. They ran for and were elected to local, state and federal offices. White Southerners strongly resisted this movement, setting up organizations like the Klu Klux Klan to intimidate with violence.  With the end of Reconstruction and federal troops leaving the south in the late 1870s, whites increased the level of violence to intimidate and depress black voter turnout.

They also regained control of state legislatures.  They gerrymandered election districts to reduce black voting strength and the number of elected officials.  In the 1890s they began to amend their state constitutions to enact laws, supposedly “color blind” on their face, to re-establish white political supremacy such as poll taxes, literacy tests, vouchers of “good character”, and disqualifications for “crimes of moral turpitude”.  As a result, by 1910, most black citizens were disenfranchised.

The Supreme Court did overturn some of the laws: “grandfather clauses” (1915), the Texas “white primary” (1944) and other tactics.  The “grandfather  clauses” made voter registration partly dependent upon whether the applicant was descended from a man who was enfranchised before enactment of the 15th Amendment.  The “white primary” allowed private political parties to conduct elections and establish qualifications for members

“In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Congress drafted and pushed to ratification two constitutional amendments — the 14th and 15th — intended to guarantee African Americans full equality before the law.  Almost immediately, the Supreme Court  began to eviscerate Congress’s work.  First the justices ruled that the federal government had very limited power to protect its citizens’ rights; most of the time it was up to the states to ensure equal treatment.  Then, bit by bit, the court gave states enormous leeway in defining equality.  If … Virginia was willing to allow judges to block blacks from juries, and Kentucky was willing to institute a poll tax that stripped African Americans of the vote,  that was their prerogative. … Less than 30 years after their passage, the 14th and 15th Amendments had been all but swept aside.”  “The Washington Post”, 2/27/2011

Legal segregation and the denial of suffrage to African Americans was firmly in place by the turn of the 20th Century and stayed that way for decades.  Mid century, however, began to bring change, when in the late 1950s and early 60s the Commission on Civil Rights and a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department were established to provide tools to end disenfranchisement.  And, the Civil Rights Movement in this country was underway.  NOTE: Women’s suffrage had been achieved in 1920 after a 70-plus-year effort.                                                                                                                                           

THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT, passed in 1965 “is generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the U.S. Congress” according to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.  The Act codifies the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that no citizen is denied the right to vote on account of race or color.     More specifically, it ended literacy tests for voting in six Southern states and required that any voting changes in state laws in certain southern states could not be enacted without the approval of the Justice Department (pre-clearance).  It authorized the Attorney General to send federal voting examiners to the covered jurisdictions to ensure people were free to register and vote.  It also directed the AG to challenge the use of the poll tax, and in 1966 the Supreme Count held Virginia’s poll tax to be unconstitutional.  NOTE: The U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2013 struck down the pre-clearance provision.                              

In 1970 the VRA was extended for five years, in 1975 for seven years. The 1975 extension amended the Act to protect “language minority citizens” (Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc.) from voting discrimination.  In 1982 the Act was extended for 25 years and provided for a “bail out” for covered jurisdictions.  And, the Voting Rights Act was again reauthorized in the summer of 2006.

The “MOTOR VOTER ACT”, (the National Voting Right Act) with a goal of making it easier for all Americans to register to vote, was passed1993 and took effect in 1995.  It requires states to provide citizens the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.  It also requires all offices that provide public assistance or programs for persons with disabilities to offer voter registration.  And the Act sets requirements for how states maintain the voter registration lists/databases for federal elections and provides for provisional ballots.

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, in response to the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election, in which nearly two million ballots were disqualified because they were over counted or not counted.  HAVA’s  main goals are to replace punch card voting systems, create the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of federal elections, and establish minimum standards for administration of elections.  Under HAVA states must issue provisional ballots, create statewide computerized voter lists, allow for “second chance” voting, and increase access for disabled voters.   NOTE: The Election Assistance Commission is not functional as all four commissioner positions have been vacant since 2011 and it hasn’t had a quorum of three (to write policy, conduct votes, etc), since 2010.  Two candidates—one nominated in 2010 and another in 2011 by the President – have not been confirmed by the Senate.

Last year, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced the creation of a Presidential Commission on Election Administration to explore the reasons for long lines at the polls during the 2012 Presidential Election.  Recently the bipartisan Commission issued its report.  “While the recommendations do not go so far as addressing the administrative barriers created by ever more restrictive voter photo ID especially in the implementation of online voter registration systems, the report takes a refreshing step back from the partisan political debate surrounding election administration to look at our diffuse system from the point of view of the voter,” wrote LWVUS President Elizabeth MacNamara.               Among the Commission’s recommendations: modernization of the registration process through expansion of online voter registration; expanded state collaboration in improving the accuracy of voter lists; expansion of early voting; selection of suitable, well equipped polling facilities; state-of-the art techniques to assure efficient management of polling places; and reforms of the standards and certification for new voting technology to address soon-to-be antiquated voting machines.

Also, in mid-January, the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA) was introduced by Representatives James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), John Conyers (D-MI), Bobby Scott (D-VA) and John Lewis (D-GA) in the U.S. House of Representatives.  According to the LWVUS, this bipartisan legislation was carefully crafted to protect the rights of all voters from discrimination and repair the damage to the Voting Rights Act inflicted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision inShelby v. Holder (removal of pre-clearance).

For more information on the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Commission report, go to the LWVUS web site, http://www.lwv.org.

One hundred years ago many states, particularly in the south, still had laws on their books restricting the right to vote for many of their citizens.  Today, sadly, many states are passing legislation in an attempt to again restrict certain voters, often for political reasons.

We saw, in the middle of the 20th Century, changes in an effort to bring equal voting opportunities to all – the Voting Rights Act, the Motor Voter Act, HAVA.   Last June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a major blow to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) when it removed the pre-clearance provision from the law.  This provision required certain states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the Justice Department before changing their election laws.

A review of 2013 state legislative activity done by the Brennan Center for Justice shows action both to restrict and to expand opportunities to vote.  Ten states passed 13 bills to expand opportunities to register and vote while eight states passed 9 restrictive bills.  Restrictive legislation last year passed in: Arkansas (Photo ID), Indiana (proof of identification), Montana (Referendum in 2014 to repeal election-day registration), Nebraska (reduces early voting), North Carolina (Photo ID, changes in early voting, same-day and early registration), North Dakota (Photo ID), Tennessee (Photo ID), Virginia (Photo ID and restrictions on third party registration).

Furthermore, last year a number of bills to restrict voting, while not always passed, were introduced.  At least 25 states introduced photo ID bills, either new or to further restrict current law. Eight states introduced legislation to make voter registration more difficult and eight sought limits to early voting.  At least two states introduced bills to make it harder to restore voting rights and two tried to make it harder for students to vote.

While legislatures are acting, the courts are also busy.  The US Justice Department last November took Texas to court seeking to bring the state under federal oversight again (intentional racial discrimination).  Justice has also sued North Carolina arguing its new law was passed with racial intent.  In January a state court judge struck down Pennsylvania’s law requiring voter ID.  Wisconsin’s photo ID law is being challenged as unconstitutional by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin as this is being written (2-25-14).

In Iowa’s current legislative session, several bills are still active.  With the recent funnel, the Secretary of State’s Voter ID bill and several others are dead.  However, a bill to restore felon voting rights (supported by the League) is still alive.

The issue of voting rights remains current and important.  Efforts to restrict or suppress voting aren’t new, but are alive and active.  Their greatest negative impact falls disproportionately on the young or poor, on minority or elderly voters.        The League has a long history of interest in and support of voting rights.  After all, we did evolve out of the fight for women’s suffrage.  League members are encouraged to stay current to what is happening with citizens’ rights to vote.

3.  

One hundred years ago many states, particularly in the south, still had laws on their books restricting the right to vote for many of their citizens. Today, sadly, many states are passing legislation in an attempt to again restrict certain voters, often for political reasons.

We saw, in the middle of the 20th Century, changes in an effort to bring equal voting opportunities to all – the Voting Rights Act, the Motor Voter Act, HAVA.   Last June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a major blow to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) when it removed the pre-clearance provision from the law. This provision required certain states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the Justice Department before changing their election laws.

A review of 2013 state legislative activity done by the Brennan Center for Justice shows action both to restrict and to expand opportunities to vote. Ten states passed 13 bills to expand opportunities to register and vote while eight states passed 9 restrictive bills. Restrictive legislation last year passed in: Arkansas (Photo ID), Indiana (proof of identification), Montana (Referendum in 2014 to repeal election-day registration), Nebraska (reduces early voting), North Carolina (Photo ID, changes in early voting, same-day and early registration), North Dakota (Photo ID), Tennessee (Photo ID), Virginia (Photo ID and restrictions on third party registration).

Furthermore, last year a number of bills to restrict voting, while not always passed, were introduced. At least 25 states introduced photo ID bills, either new or to further restrict current law. Eight states introduced legislation to make voter registration more difficult and eight sought limits to early voting. At least two states introduced bills to make it harder to restore voting rights and two tried to make it harder for students to vote.

While legislatures are acting, the courts are also busy. The US Justice Department last November took Texas to court seeking to bring the state under federal oversight again (intentional racial discrimination). Justice has also sued North Carolina arguing its new law was passed with racial intent. In January a state court judge struck down Pennsylvania’s law requiring voter ID. Wisconsin’s photo ID law is being challenged as unconstitutional by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin as this is being written (2-25-14).

In Iowa’s current legislative session, several bills are still active. With the recent funnel, the Secretary of State’s Voter ID bill and several others are dead. However, a bill to restore felon voting rights (supported by the League) is still alive.

The issue of voting rights remains current and important. Efforts to restrict or suppress voting aren’t new, but are alive and active. Their greatest negative impact falls disproportionately on the young or poor, on minority or elderly voters.        The League has a long history of interest in and support of voting rights. After all, we did evolve out of the fight for women’s suffrage. League members are encouraged to stay current to what is happening with citizens’ rights to vote.

PAT JENSEN

 

PAT JENSEN

 

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