Combating The Long History of Voter Suppression

Pia Sharma

Many Americans have a hard time not only acknowledging the long history of voter suppression in American history but, more importantly, the fact that the very foundation of American democracy was built on it. Since before the establishment of the Constitution, only white men who owned property could vote according to the Northwest Ordinance in the Articles of Confederation. After the establishment of the Constitution, only white men (regardless of property ownership) could vote up until 1870 when the ratification of the 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote and later, the 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote. The disproportionate lack of black and female voters, as well as many other systemic and social prejudices, set up the historically long line of white men in office until Obama’s unprecedented election in 2008. Although the Constitution legally gave black citizens the right to vote, this doesn’t mean that the process of voting was as accessible and equitable for people of color.

Voter suppression is a political strategy that ranges from the coercion and intimidation put upon marginalized groups or people in attempts to deter or discount their right to vote. Since 1870, white supremacists and white supremacy groups such as the Klu Klux Klan have had a history of intimidating people of color casting their ballots at the polls and voting centers. After the Civil War in 1865, a number of Southern states included literacy tests as a requirement to vote. This was deemed illegal by the Voting Rights Act an entire century later. Before 1968, formerly enslaved people who hadn’t had accessible education prior, would have their vote suppressed via legal loopholes. Our country’s laws considered these voting restrictions constitutional, but they contradicted completely what the constitution stood for. 

Fast forward to these recent elections where voter suppression is as prominent as ever. There has been a recent spread of Mildred Madison’s voting story; the 94-year-old woman travelled 300 miles in a wheelchair to vote when her absentee ballot hadn’t arrived. Many people who heard this story for the first time might have admired her patriotism and, though it is admirable, this story isn’t heartwarming and is instead the result of making voting less accessible to those who are marginalized. In the  2018 midterm election, according to the PBS NewsHour Podcast, a married black couple in Georgia took off a week of work to take five trips just to vote and stated that “yes, there has been a lot of difficulty [to vote] as a black man.”. This year in 2020, there are 36 states that request or require ID at the polls. Voter ID laws in general have suppressed and reduced voter turnout by approximately 3 percentage points, which closely equates to about tens of thousands of votes lost in each state where ID is required or requested. Black people are disproportionately less likely to have the ID requested or required by the voting laws and restrictions enacted republican legislation. Predominantly black communities or neighborhoods with a minority majority also have a higher chance of experiencing longer voting lines on election day and not to mention that there is a common spread of political misinformation to marginalized communities to suppress the BIPOC vote.

There are many more testimonies and instances where individuals or whole communities have their right to participate in democracy snatched away from them because of voter suppression. It is important now more than ever that voting is not only accessible, but encouraged and equally available to all American citizens. Because voter suppression is historically and currently a systemic issue, it’s hard to provide a clear-cut, concrete solution to the issue at hand. The most effective way to counter voter suppression is to vote, and more importantly, make sure your vote is counted.

The only good news about this election is that as of last week, more people have voted early than the entirety of total votes counted in the 2016 election. Americans are using their right to participate in democracy now more than ever and hopefully the legacy of high voter turnout rates in the 2020 election continues to rise in future elections as it is our civil duty to our nation to exercise our right to vote.