WASHINGTON –– Even after a half-century of election law that was intended to settle the question of who is eligible to vote in the United States, contentious issues remain on who gets that right.
The battles, just like those before the bill was signed into law Aug. 6, 1965, are held long before someone gets to the voting booth.
Before the law, especially in the Jim Crow South, African-Americans were routinely denied the right to vote. Some city or county clerk offices established a “poll tax,” set so high that low-income blacks could not afford to pay it. Sometimes blacks were made to take tests to determine their eligibility to vote – tests that were designed to fail them. Sometimes clerks just outright refused to register black voters, and there was no higher legal authority to tell them otherwise.
And, before the Civil War, African-American suffrage in the South was virtually nil. Blacks weren’t regarded as citizens, but property. Yet the “three-fifths compromise” allowed slaveholding states to count every five blacks as three persons for purposes of voting strength.
Alarmed at declining turnout for presidential elections and even worse turnout for off-year elections, Congress passed a law in 1993 requiring states to offer voter registration with the issuance of driver’s licenses – the “motor-voter” law. Some states even adopted same-day registration laws.
Later, some Republicans objected to motor-voter laws because younger drivers, who took the most advantage of the easier voter registration process, tended to vote more Democratic on Election Day.
After the highly contested 2000 presidential election, which George W. Bush won despite getting fewer votes nationally than Al Gore — not to mention the drawn-out process in Florida featuring hanging chads and “butterfly ballots” – the nation’s focus was turned toward the issue of whether every voter’s vote had been counted.
Somewhere along the way, the conversation changed from making sure everyone who voted had their votes counted to battles over expanding – or contracting – the franchise.
Disputes have arisen over the eligibility of former prison inmates to vote. In some cases, voters have been purged from the rolls in the belief that they and the ex-con are one and the same when they were not.
Ridding from voter lists the names of people who have not voted in recent years has been an issue.
The expansion and curtailment of early voting — depending on which party is in power at the state capital — has also proved nettlesome.
Extending the franchise to those younger than 18 – 16-year-olds in some jurisdictions – and to noncitizen residents in the District of Columbia, which has no vote in Congress, has also raised eyebrows.
The most visceral of the disputes has come in the form of voter ID laws. Proponents contend the laws cut down on voter fraud; opponents contend the laws discourage voting. In races that seem to be won ever more now by razor-thin margins, every vote – and every vote not cast – counts.
The Supreme Court decision of 2013 overturning key sections of the Voting Rights Act that required states with history of voter suppression to subject any changes in voting law to federal approval only served to add more fuel to the fire.
Gerrymandering that concentrates the minority party in states into ill-drawn districts while leaving the majority party with breathing room to withstand a contested election is increasingly being looked askance upon by the Justice Department. And a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court in New Orleans struck down Texas’ voter ID law, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act and discriminated against the state’s blacks and Hispanics, saying it was tantamount to a poll tax.
“The importance of the ruling has not been lost on advocates battling on the frontlines to expand our nation’s access to the ballot and thwart legislative attempts at voter suppression,” said Marc H. Morial, the Catholic former mayor of New Orleans and Louisiana state senator who now heads the National Urban League.
“It’s all about politics,” declared Charles Steele Jr., president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at an Aug. 6 Voting Rights Act anniversary rally on the National Mall. “Where people figure if they can suppress 10 to 15 percent of the black vote, they can steal an election.”
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act in June. If passed, the law would, among other things, give federal courts jurisdiction to enforce constitutional voting guarantees, and forbid discrimination in voter access due to race, color or membership in a language minority group. The bill was referred in July to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
Changing the law is not enough, according to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who made two bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s. For him, the Constitution should be amended to guarantee the right to vote.
“The Constitution does not explicitly guarantee an individual right to vote to all Americans,” Rev. Jackson wrote in a column syndicated to black newspapers. “The 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments only outlaw discrimination in voting on the basis of race, sex and age,” while leaving the rest to the states.
In the past 50 years, “we’ve gone from protecting the right to vote to suppressing it,” he said. “It took a grassroots voting rights movement to gain a Voting Rights Act. It will again take a grassroots voting rights movement to add a right to vote amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the road to a more complete democracy.”
The Urban League’s Morial called widespread voter ID fraud a myth and “nothing more than a political fraud orchestrated by officials eager to shift political fortunes to their party.”
Morial added, “If our elected officials truly do believe that all votes matter, Congress must commit to stemming the tide of suppression.”
President Barack Obama, during a White House commemoration of the Voting Rights Act, suggested that turn-aways at the precinct are less important than turnout.
“Far more people,” he said, “disenfranchise themselves than any law does, by not participating, by not getting involved.”