The late Rep. John Lewis said it best in 2012: “The vote is valuable; it is nearly sacred. It is the single most effective nonviolent tool in a civilized and peaceful society like ours.” But we have to put it to good use. Having fought for the right to vote in America himself, I think Congressman John Lewis was aware of this.
Our “founding fathers” envisioned a fair and just democracy for all in their writings. However, this ideal was not realized in the early American experiment, and white landowners had voting rights. Over time, regulations were altered to permit states to determine their own election procedures, allowing farmers and commoners to vote but not all citizens. In 1776, New Jersey granted everyone the right to vote but later stripped women and Black men of their voting privileges. Native Americans, African Americans, women, and immigrants were denied the right to vote, while Maryland banned Jewish voters.
The 15th Amendment assured citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on race, color or previous servitude. However, it also allowed states to regulate elections as they saw fit.
White Mississippi Democrats were shocked when two Republican Black men, Hiram R. Revels of Natchez and Blanche K. Bruce of Bolivar County, joined the Senate following the American Civil War in 1865. In 1881, white leaders and citizens intimidated voters to restore white Democrats to power in Mississippi. Mississippi was one of the first states to enact a “grandfather clause” allowing registration of anybody whose grandfather was eligible to vote before the Civil War. This voter-suppression method reduced Black men’s voting eligibility from 90% to 6% in 1892.
Women were still unable to vote. Many states used poll taxes, literacy exams and English-language requirements to suppress the votes of minorities and the poor, especially African Americans and immigrants. Jim Crow Laws were the result of such practices. A similar campaign was ongoing in Mississippi and the other southern states for close to a century.
The struggle for African-American suffrage persisted for decades. It reminds me of a story my late grandmother told me about her great-grandfather and her grandfather, neither of whom ever voted due to poll taxes. My heart is broken because my ancestors were tax-paying citizens who were denied representation in this nation.
Many American marched, were imprisoned, and even killed for voting rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s 1963 March On Washington drew more than 200,000 people and raised awareness about African Americans’ challenges and disadvantages a century after emancipation. Dr. King’s actions transformed U.S. politics. In 1964, the 24th amendment to the United States Constitution abolished poll taxes. Then, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed African Americans to vote, altering their standing in the South and ending Jim Crow.
‘Casting a Ballot Should Be Easy’
The Voting Rights Act protects against voting discrimination and prohibited states from disenfranchising Black voters via literacy tests. Before 1969, only 23% of Blacks of voting age were registered. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has struck down the law twice in the past eight years, rendering it ineffective against voter discrimination. This is why lawmakers should pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act improves the government’s response to voting discrimination, strengthening voting rights. Due to restricted voting laws, passing this act now is vital.
As we approach the upcoming primaries in the United States in 2022, I would like to present some facts on voter suppression that many Americans appear to ignore. Getting out and casting a ballot should be easy; in many places, it actually is. However, over the past few years, more than 400 anti-voter measures have been introduced in 48 states. These regulations create pointless roadblocks for voter registration, absentee voting and in-person voting. The final consequence is a badly compromised democracy that no longer reflects the will of the people. Our democracy functions most effectively when all eligible people can vote and have their voices heard.
Efforts to suppress the vote can range from relatively minor restrictions, like voter-ID laws and reductions in early voting, to more egregious measures, such as widespread purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement. These policies are more likely to negatively affect African Americans, students, the elderly, and those with disabilities.
|By a 49-51 margin, the Senate blocked the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 from advancing to a final passage vote. Sixty votes were needed. Credit: CSPAN.org|
For instance, in 2018, Stacy Abrams challenged then-Georgia Secretary of State and fellow Republican Brian Kemp for the governorship. Brain Kemp oversaw election administration as secretary of state. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that, during his time in office, Kemp was responsible for canceling voter registration for over 1.4 million inactive voters, the majority of whom were people of color and low income. In 2017, more than 668,000 of these registrations were canceled. Georgia held 53,000 voter registrations in the run-up to the 2018 election, mostly from people of color, to conduct further checks. Kemp beat Abrams by 55,000 votes in 2018.
This is a perfect illustration of the potential impact that these uncounted ballots could have had on the outcome of the election and how influential politicians use their positions to pass laws designed to suppress the Black vote. Many of the 53,000 voter registrations held for further checks were due to minor administrative questions—an example of modern-day literacy tests.
The new elections law in Georgia will make it more difficult to cast a ballot. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp passed legislation making it illegal to give voters free food or water. Voters face difficulties since many states have not increased the number of polling places to match the rising number of registered voters. The number of polling places has decreased or remained the same in many states despite increased voter registration.
Also, voter ID is required in 35 of the 50 states. In order to cast a regular ballot in seven states, voters are required to present government-issued photo IDs. There is an ongoing effort to suppress the vote, and measures like these rigorous ID rules are a part of that. Other examples of modern voter suppression in our society include no early voting, failure to timely process voter registrations, lack of public transportation to polling places, ex-felon disenfranchisement laws, splitting Black precincts (which creates polling place confusion), absentee ballot short return deadlines, cuts to election day (same day) registration and insufficient number of functioning machines, optical scanners or electronic polling books.
It is imperative that politicians enact laws that protect and enhance voting rights in light of the ongoing threats to our democracy dressed as voter suppression and intimidation. Since the arrival of our forefathers, African Americans have been the backbone of American progress. We have bravely fought on American battlefields, sworn allegiance to American values, and loved America even when she did not love us back.
Voter turnout is crucial in the November 2022 election to counteract this new modern-day form of voter suppression. While we won’t have to give our lives as our forebears did for the right to vote, nevertheless we need to cast our ballots with the seriousness they deserve. The next generation depends on our vote in November.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.