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The Costs of Voter Suppression, Then and Now

The integrity of U.S. elections depends on every eligible American being able to cast a vote that is counted. It was believed that in 2016, the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, that countless Americans faced challenges and obstacles to accessing the ballot box.

A June 2018 study conducted jointly by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found that an increased number of racially-biased election laws, such as voter ID legislation, threaten to disenfranchise African American and Latinx communities and effectively, erode the protections afforded them under full citizenship. With an estimated 21 million voters deprived of their Constitutional right to vote as the result of voter ID restrictions, roughly 14 million voters with disabilities were unable to cast a vote because voting centers were ill-equipped to accommodate their access; and an additional 16 million voters who live below the poverty line and identify as Democrat were unable to cast a vote because of polling closures, lack of alternatives to in-person voting, an inability to afford time off from work to vote, and a lack of transportation to polling locations.

Before the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August 1965, suffrage for non-whites was informed by the 1898 Grandfather Clause — which instituted literacy tests and poll taxes as a requirement to register to vote. It included an added addendum that restricted voting rights to those citizens whose grandfathers could not vote before 1867. The law, initially adopted in Louisiana, grew in popularity among eight other Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Those who attempted to cast ballots after maneuvering the registration process faced open, often violent retaliation. Calling Johnson’s signing “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield, Dr. King would celebrate the advancement that came just seven months after he’d launched a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) campaign to force Congress to pass the legislation.

However unconstitutional and unpatriotic these ongoing efforts appear; they represent a persistent attack against suffrage and citizenship — with origins birthed alongside the nation itself. Andrew Gumbel noted in a 2017 Guardian newspaper feature that the 2000 presidential election exposed flaws in the U.S. electoral system that many Americans had not thought about since Dr. King’s battle for the ballot.

“Not only was there a problem of reliability with the voting machines, it also became clear that the United States had never established an unequivocal right to vote; had never established an apolitical, professional class of election managers; and had no proper central electoral commission to set standards and lay down basic rules for everyone to follow, free of political interference,” Gumbel reported.

After record voter turnout in 2008, more than 30 states introduced voter suppression legislation in 2011: 16 states passed such measures. Thirteen states introduced bills that: End highly popular Election Day and same-day voter registration, Limit voter registration drives; and Reduce opportunities for voters to register.

Some examples of these include: The state of Maine, which eliminated Election Day registration, the state of Ohio, which ended the period when voters could register and vote on the same day; and Florida and Texas, both restricted voter registration drives. Census data shows that Hispanic (9.6 percent) and African American (11.4 percent) voters are about twice as likely to register to vote through voter registration drives as white voters (5.4 percent).

Americans like the late activist Fannie Lou Hamer likened voter disenfranchisement to a brand of cowardice that allowed the weak to manipulate the most productive and vital elements of the nation through self-serving laws.

“With the people, for the people, by the people. I crack up when I hear it; I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, cause that’s what really happens,” Hamer said.

The inability of the incarcerated as well as returning citizens with felony convictions remains, perhaps, the most contested form of voter disenfranchisement currently under protest. More than 6 million American citizens are barred from voting because of a felony conviction — that equates to one in every 13 African Americans.

One report shows that in four states, more than one-fifth of the African American population is disenfranchised: Florida (21 percent), Tennessee (21 percent), Virginia (22 percent), and Kentucky (26 percent) — numbers which could easily create voting blocs and impact real change in African American communities.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. In 16 states and the District of Columbia, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated, and receive automatic restoration upon release. In 21 states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration, and for a period of time after, typically while on parole and/or probation. Voting rights are automatically restored after this time period. Former felons may also have to pay any outstanding fines, fees or restitution before their rights are restored as well. And, finally, in 11 states felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) or require additional action before voting rights can be restored.

Note: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) attempted to restore voting rights to the state’s more than 200,000 felons. It was struck down by the Virginia Supreme Court, which claimed McAuliffe lacked constitutional authority to do so. McAuliffe did restore rights to 60,000 of the state’s ex-offenders through individual rights restoration orders.

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