August 6, 2018 marks the 53rd anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing into law the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. Politicians and organizations alike are recognizing the milestone on social media, highlighting how the VRA continues to influence American elections and politics today.
Congress passed the VRA to prevent voter suppression efforts at the state and local levels, which primarily prevented African Americans from voting, a right that was granted with the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, white leaders began enacting measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses that disenfranchised black voters in much of the country. In the early 1900s, U.S. Supreme Court cases and acts from Congress began striking down voter suppression measures. However, it was not until President Johnson called for comprehensive legislation that Congress passed the VRA in 1965. In the 1970s, Congress passed expansion measures to include U.S. citizens who do not speak English.
Although voter suppression has never ceased to exist, the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder provided more leeway for state voter suppression. The Court essentially nullified Section 5 of the VRA, which required preclearance in voting regulation changes in some notorious states. Since then, as many as 17 states (which have 189 electoral votes) have passed new voter suppression laws, which more than likely played a roll in the 2016 election results. These laws include changes regarding voter identification requirements, early voting cutbacks, and voter registration modifications.
Voter ID laws are put in place supposedly to stop voter fraud, but in reality, they prevent registered voters from actually voting on Election Day. A study in Wisconsin, for example, showed that as many as 23,000 eligible voters in the state were discouraged from casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election due to the state’s voter ID laws. The study also found that 27.5% of African Americans were discouraged compared to only 8.3% of white registered voters. Similarly, 21.1% of low-income registered voters were deterred by voter ID laws, compared to only 2.7% of high-income registered voters.
Gerrymandering also prevents an individual’s vote from meaningfully counting in our election system. In 2016 in North Carolina, Republicans won 10 of the 13 congressional seats despite only wining 53 percent of the popular vote. And in Pennsylvania, gerrymandering has empowered Republicans to hold 13 of the state’s 18 seats in the House of Representatives, despite the fact that Democrats have almost 800,000 more registered voters than Republicans. This is why voting rights advocates have been working to find discriminatory districts across the country unconstitutional.
This year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s congressional districts violate the state Constitution by unfairly benefiting the GOP and required they be redrawn. Republican leaders then filed an emergency appeal asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hold that redrawing order, which the Justices then rejected. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has also upheld gerrymandering in other cases. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs in Wisconsin’s and North Carolina’s redistricting cases did not have grounds to bring a lawsuit. In Texas, the Court ruled that all but one district, Democratically-held state House District 90, could remain in place for the 2018 elections. All three of these decisions favor the GOP.
Other voter suppression methods involve purging voter rolls, meaning that states can remove registered voters who have not voted in a certain number of years. The Supreme Court upheld an Ohio law that removes voters from voter rolls after four years of inactivity. Like other voter suppression measures, voter roll purging targets populations of voters from predominantly poor black neighborhoods in the greatest numbers.
Most states today block voting rights of former felons to some degree. Nationwide, disenfranchisement of former felons blocks about 6 million potential voters, and just in Florida, that number is 1.5 million voters, including 21 percent of all black residents of voting age. Florida ex-felons are permanently blocked from voting unless they apply to the Office of Executive Clemency. Under Governor Rick Scott, just 3,005 voters have had their rights restored. Although some states have begun to change their laws regarding former felons, and even Florida has a ballot measure in November that would automatically restore voting rights, voter suppression of ex-felons remains a seriously harmful measure.
Gerrymandering and other voter suppression tactics could find a haven in Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was chosen from a list of 25 jurists who were handpicked by the right-wing Federalist Society. In 2015, Kavanaugh upheld a South Carolina discriminatory voter ID law that was originally blocked by the Obama administration because it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Media Resources: Encyclopedia Britannica 7/30/18; Feminist Newswire 6/25/13; ACLU 2018; Feminist Newswire 10/6/17; Feminist Newswire 2/6/18; Feminist Newswire 6/26/18; Feminist Newswire 6/18/18; New York Times 5/11/18; Slate 4/26/18;