History and politics concerning the right to vote in the United States

The struggle for the right to vote, and suppression of that right when gained, is a very old American story.  It is always at once historical and very current.  In recent years the Republican party has made it deeply relevant to its harnessing of power at the state and national level.  The recent election of Donald Trump should make us take notice of this issue, as well as many more. 

On November 3, 2016—less than a week before the presidential election—the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center hosted a panel discussion titled “The Right to Vote: Protection or Suppression Since 1965.” (view video) Moderated by GLC Director David Blight, the panel considered the history of efforts to ensure and to restrict the electoral franchise in the United States. As the New York Times noted in an election day Op-Ed, voting is a fundamental hallmark of American citizenship. And yet, the paper reported, tens of thousands of eligible U.S. voters across the country have been prevented from casting ballots in recent years due to procedural maneuvers initiated by Republican officials. Because of the combination of mass incarceration and state-level restrictions against voting by convicted felons, millions more are not eligible to vote at all. Recent court cases and journalistic sleuthing have revealed that some Republican lawmakers and civil servants have used explicitly partisan language to justify their efforts to suppress voting by young people and people of color.   

The GLC panel examined these trends in historical context, focusing most closely on the period between the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the present. Panelists included Ari Berman (senior contributing writer, The Nation magazine, and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America), Beverly Gage (Professor of History, Yale University); Isela Gutiérrez-Gunter (Associate Research Director, Democracy North Carolina), and Kenneth Mack (Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of History at Harvard University and author of Representing the Race: The Creation of a Civil Rights Lawyer).

Asking the audience to consider the lengths that African Americans have had to go in order to claim full citizenship, David Blight began the discussion with a story of Frederick Douglass’ 1838 escape from slavery in Maryland.  After settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of the first acts Douglass took was to register to vote. Having used an assumed name and claiming political rights for himself as a citizen, notwithstanding his legal status as human property, Douglass “in every conceivable way” committed an illegal act by claiming the franchise. Blight’s satirical and ironic point about Douglass stresses how much current Republican party efforts to suppress voting rights of African Americans soils the memory of a great original Republican.  Blight and the other panelists emphasized that the current political clamor over largely unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud masks the consistent and more troubling historical undercurrent of voter disenfranchisement. From the birth of the nation, African Americans, other people of color, and women have faced enormous—often bloody and sometimes lethal—obstacles in the path to political participation.

The ongoing struggle by African Americans and others to exercise their voting rights issue typically receives little scrutiny in the media. Investigative journalist Ari Berman is a notable exception. Berman began the panel presentations by explaining the inspiration for his book’s title: Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1957 speech “Give us the Ballot,” which addressed the importance of voting in the wake of Brown v Board of Education. As Berman explained, King believed that access to the franchise “would change the entire landscape” by granting African Americans real political power. “We are now witnessing a fifty year effort to roll back the Voting Rights Act,” Berman continued. “In the same way that Reconstruction led to Southern Redemption, the recent election of the first black President has resulted in a new sort of redemption.” The June 2013 decision by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v Holder, which declared unconstitutional a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in particular has served as a “steroid for voter suppression.”

Mechanisms for this suppression include narrow definitions of acceptable forms of identification and cutbacks on voting times and polling stations. As an example of the consequences of increased restrictions, Berman shared the story of Eddie Lee Holloway Jr. An African-American man, Holloway moved from Chicago to Milwaukee in 2008. Three years later, Wisconsin passed a new voter-ID law. Despite bringing three forms of identification with him to the DMV to get his new photo-ID, Holloway’s application was denied due to a clerical error on his birth certificate. After being directed to seven different government agencies, and having spent hundreds of dollars on travel costs and fees, Hollaway never was able to get an approved ID.  Eventually, he gave up. Berman explained that Holloway’s problem was not unique, as about 300,000 voters in Wisconsin do not have proper photo identification. Berman finished stating that stories like Holloway’s bothered him most. “I’m concerned,” he said, “about people who have been voting their entire lives suddenly being disenfranchised because one party thinks that’s how they will capture the White House.”

Isela Gutiérrez spoke next about her work with Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan organization based in Durham, NC, that focuses on organizing and policy efforts to ensure citizens the right to vote. Their main opponent is the “monster voter suppression law” created from the Shelby v Holder case. Prior to 2013, Gutiérrez explained, North Carolina had the “Cadillac” of voter registration systems, allowing for a number of provisions that increased access to the polls, such as early voting, same day registration, and out of precinct voting. These provisions resulted in African Americans voting at about the same rate as whites. Under the Voting Rights Act, any changes to voting practices in many of North Carolina’s counties was monitored by the federal government. Soon after Shelby, these counties were able to freely put in place their own legislation, including voter-ID laws. According to Gutiérrez, new restrictions created a “massive sea change in the electoral structure” of North Carolina. Despite widespread voter education efforts in the wake of the new legislation, about 30,000 voters were disenfranchised. North Carolina’s close races meant that “those 30,000 votes really mattered,” and had the ability to change the outcome of elections. Subsequently, the restrictive voter-ID law was struck down, but other restrictions remain. Gutiérrez highlighted early voting as particularly limited.  She also commented on the difficulty of tracking these changes. Whereas previously the federal government publically kept record of the changes to any voting revisions, tracking is now only possible by attending meetings of the Board of Elections for each county. “In the thick of laws that are this intimate and dynamic,” Gutiérrez concluded, Democracy North Carolina continues to “do their best to educate voters.”

Kenneth Mack began his presentation with a discussion of a 2016 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld new Ohio statutes designed to make it more difficult for homeless people, predominately people of color, to participate in the voting process. Focusing on Judge Damon Keith’s dissenting opinion, Mack noted that the judge attached the pictures of 36 men, women, and children who died for civil rights, invoking their history to give weight to his claims before ending his dissent with the story of Barack Obama. To explain “why Judge Keith saw the stakes of voting restriction in Ohio under such stark terms,” Mack drew on the history of the 1870 Enforcement Act, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. This legislation, Mack explained, was directed at voting regimes that appeared “neutral but in practice made it very hard for African Americans to vote.” Because 19th century voting was a public activity, African Americans who exercised the franchise were subject to “rampant violence” on the part of white supremacist mobs. Thus, while voting was “formally free…everybody knew that in order to vote you had to have protection from white violence.” As an early example of the Federal government gaining “jurisdiction over what had previously been local elections,” this legislative act was the 19th century’s “version of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Granting Federal authority over the franchise was necessary, Mack explained, in light of the organized efforts of southern states to disenfranchise newly freed African Americans through a combination of legislative actions and political violence. Federal ability to stem such violence rapidly unraveled as the Supreme Court ultimately withdrew national authority over the Southern states. As an example, Mack discussed the Colfax Massacre of 1873, in which white supremacists in Louisiana killed about 150 African Americans in the wake of a fiercely contested gubernatorial race. The white militia members who perpetrated the massacre initially were charged with violations of the Enforcement Act but the charges did not hold, as the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 that the Act unconstitutionally violated state powers. Like voting, Mack explained, murder is subject to state jurisdiction, limiting federal intervention. For Mack, the Colfax Massacre spelled the end of Reconstruction in Louisiana and marked “the beginning of the end of the first era of black voting rights.” Returning to his opening remarks, Mack concluded that Judge Keith’s dissenting opinion in the 6th Circuit Case makes the argument that acceptance of voting restrictions that appear to be neutral or of purely local concern does “a disservice to those who have died for voting rights.”

Beverly Gage, a Professor of History at Yale and a specialist on 20th century American politics and society, was the last panelist to give an opening statement. Gage began by posing three questions useful in thinking about voting. First, who is given the franchise? Second, who is able to exercise their right to vote? And third, how are votes counted and legitimated? While voter fraud may have been a problem in the past, Gage submitted that “voter suppression and barriers to voting are the questions of our age and they are not neutral questions but have implications for parties and minorities,” especially as we are “living in an age of close elections” where every vote is weighted more heavily.

After the opening statements, the moderator asked the panelists to explain the impact of the Shelby decision. Ari Berman answered first, explaining that, with African American and Latinos the fastest growing voting populations, the Republican Party could either “change [their] policies…or reach back in American history and try to make it harder for people who disagree with [them] to cast their ballot.” Beverly Gage referred specifically to the language of the voter laws made in the wake of Shelby, referencing the “new ostensibly race-blind language that nonetheless had clear racial implications.”

The panel ended with a last question from the audience: Why haven’t the media paid more attention to this issue? Ari Berman felt that voter disenfranchisement has not gotten more attention because it deals with race and partisanship in ways “that make people uncomfortable.” Blight asked why no single Republican has yet to stand up and simply confess that suppression, whatever forms it takes, is simply wrong.  Isela Gutiérrez admitted that while voting rights can make for a “boring story” with minutia that doesn’t capture headlines, community organizing around voter suppression does draw media attention. Organizing allows people to “take the power” into their own hands. “This is our democracy, our voting system, we don’t have to wait,” Gutiérrez reminded the audience. 

(watch video)


Written by GLC staff members Eva Branson, David Blight, Tom Thurston, and Michelle Zacks.

Monday, November 14, 2016