How Voting is Key to Social Justice
Whether through literacy tests, poll taxes, or contemporary voter ID laws this country has systemically sought to impede Blacks, Latinos, women, the elderly, and even students from making their voices heard at the ballot box for over 150 years. In her book One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, Carol Anderson provides a detailed history of voter suppression, particularly against Black Americans. She chronicles how the moment the Three-Fifths Compromise was removed from the Constitution, and particularly when Blacks were freed after the Civil War, local State and even the Federal Government, proceeded to use a series of voter suppression tactics to harass, obstruct, frustrate, and purge American citizens from participating in democracy. Given how close we are to Election Day, it is critical that you understand how to avoid voter suppression and engage in social justice work through voting.
The History of Voter Suppression
Voter suppression saw particular prominence during the reconstruction period. After the Civil War, Joevahn Scott in his TED talk “Fighting Voter Suppression,” chronicles that “Before the 20th century there were 20 black men who served in Congress and two in the United States Senate before voter suppression reduced our ability to get elected officials in office removing our voice from government and leading to decades of [systemic and legalized] oppression.” Such electoral participation and Black government representation infuriated a still racist Southern America.
Unwilling to be outnumbered by a newly freed population, various States set up barriers that made voting not just difficult but literally impossible for Black Americans. They imposed literacy tests that required Blacks to read and interpret dense portions of the Constitution and explain it. And if that weren’t enough, states implemented the Grandfather Clause in the 1890s which was a set of laws that declared that only those who could vote prior to the emancipation of the slaves or who were the lineal descendants of voters could vote.
This along with Poll taxes became the primary restrictions to voting for African Americans. Arguing that it costs money to hold elections, local states charged Blacks high prices in order to cast their vote. For example, in Alabama in 1944 a person would need to pay a $30 tax in order to vote. This is equivalent to $722 in 2016 according to George Stoney in his article “Suffrage in the South: The Poll Tax.” And when literacy tests, and the Grandfather Clause, and the poll tax were not enough, Black Americans were threatened, jailed, beaten, and even killed for voting. In fact, the times when the government would step in and get the rare Black person registered, many times their names were never added to the list or they were purged off the list preventing them from voting on Election Day anyway.
Decline in Voter Participation
This led to a serious decline in Black voter participation. In fact, Anderson writes that in Louisiana, where “more than 130,000 blacks had been registered to vote in 1896, the figure dropped to a bleak 1,342 by 1904.” The numbers were even worse in Alabama as they decreased from 180,000 to 3,000 in just three years. Carol Anderson writes, “Indeed, by 1940…only 3% of age-eligible blacks were registered to vote in the South.” In fact, in Anderson’s research she shows that voter discrimination worked so well that “In 1867, the percentage of African American adults registered to vote in Mississippi was 66.9 percent; by 1955, it was 4.3%. Between 1954 and 1962, only eight blacks in all of Claiborne County had managed to come through Mississippi’s gauntlet” (16). Counties in Alabama had zero to less than 2% of African Americans registered, and Georgia had less than 10% in 1962.
This decline remained in spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 showing that voter suppression was not rectified until the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. While watching the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where former Congressman John Lewis and others peacefully marched across to their state capital to demand their right to vote, the country watched in horror as peaceful protestors were tear gassed, whipped with barbed-wire bull-whips, and police on horseback trampling over the bodies of protestors. Such trauma led to sweeping passage of the Voting Rights Act with overwhelming majorities in the House of Representatives (328-74) and the Senate (79-18).
The Problem With Voter ID Laws
Our country would not be confronted with such grotesque voter suppression again until the 2000 Presidential Election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. There, Florida becomes a seat of controversy as thousands are purged from voter logs, polling places are closed early, and people are restricted from participating leading to President George Bush’s win by the Electoral College, despite his loss of the popular vote.
Such systemic voter suppression is further solidified in 2013 when the Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder to amend a key element of the Voting Rights Act under the belief that the racism and systemic oppression that existed restricting Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and women from participating was no longer a factor. In their estimation our country had moved on from these ills and the citizens no longer needed protection from such disenfranchisement under the law.
This would prove to be wrong as States like Indiana under the leadership of then Governor Mike Pence would institute Voter ID laws requiring people to present their birth certificate in order to obtain a state ID, but would then require a state ID of persons in order for them to obtain their birth certificate. In fact, Thom Hartmann in his book The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote – and How to Get it Back writes that “In Indiana, then – Governor Mike Pence’s new rigorous voter ID law caused an 11.5 percent drop in African American voting.” States like Texas would proceed to refuse people the opportunity to vote if their drivers license was expired or if there was even a slight comma, name change, or spelling error that they could not account for with a birth certificate, marriage license, passport, divorce paperwork, or any other legal document.
This is a form of voter suppression because many of the individuals who require these documents often cannot afford to obtain them. This makes voter ID laws a direct attack against persons of color and the poor. They are also an attack against women, as many women get married and according to the Brennan Center for Justice “90% of women take on their husbands name” thus immediately causing a discrepancy between their state issued ID and their birth certificate. In fact, in some states, women are turned away from voting for not having the precise exact documents. Hartmann writes:
Voter ID laws have a disproportionately negative effect on women. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, one third of all women have citizenship documents that do not identically match their current names primarily because of name changes at marriage…roughly 90 percent of married female voters have a different name on their ID than the one on their birth certificate. An estimated 34 percent of women could be turned away from the polls unless they have precisely the right documents.
Voter ID Laws and the Fear of Voter Fraud
Voter ID laws were implemented because of the Republican outcry against “voter fraud.” This is idea is based on the fear that people are voting multiple times under different names, or foreign operatives are voting and turning our elections. In other words, some kind of deviance or discrepancy is occurring at the state level during the electoral process and people are seeking to, as Carol Anderson records, “protect the integrity of the ballot box.”
Political scientists have done extensive work on “voter fraud” and found it be extremely rare. Furthermore, Carol Anderson documents in her book that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that “the only kind of voter fraud that SEA 483 addresses is in-person voter impersonation at polling places.” He then subsequently admitted that “the record contains no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history.” In other words, the state of Indiana where Governor Pence was enacting some of the harshest voter ID laws political scientists, lawyers, and judges attest there is no tangible evidence or documentation of even one instance of voter fraud ever in the history of the state to even present a need for Voter ID laws in Indiana.
With so much voter suppression and voter obstruction, why vote? The truth is, the Votes of Black and Brown people are critical. Frankly, if they weren’t local and federal officials wouldn’t try so hard to prevent you from voting. The main reason they are critical is because voting is about representation. It’s about having a voice, a say, in how the country is run. Voting is the central controller of what Thom Hartmann identifies as the “American Commons.”
In the introduction to The Hidden History of the War on Voting Hartmann explains that the commons include “air and water; our roads and skyways; the frequency spectrum we use for communication, radio, and television; our public school system; our military, police, and fire departments; the agencies we use to ensure the safety and quality of our food and medications; the systems and laws that keep people laying the game of business within legal boundaries; our jails and prisons; our oceans and public lands; and our social safety net – among other things.” In other words, our vote for who is in government directly impacts the environment, the economy, the criminal justice system, healthcare, education, agriculture, infrastructure, foreign affairs, and every kind of human protection you can imagine.
This is why Stacey Abrams, avid advocate for voting rights, says that “voting rights serve as the conduit through which all other change is made possible.”
Voting rights serve as the conduit through which all other change is made possible
We cannot have social justice a part from voting. The moment you refrain from voting or are restricted from voting you are deemed impotent in producing any kind of substantive and systematic change for the vulnerable within this country. It is this truth that the great Congressman John Lewis died upholding and fighting for.
Biblical Grounds for Civic Engagement
In fact, Scripture provides support for your responsibility to your country and Earthly citizenship. In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 17:24-27 we see here that our spiritual identity, our spiritual reality, as sons and daughters of the Creator God does not absolve us of our social and political responsibilities to this Earth. Instead, our spiritual identities in Christ actually commission us to a life of servanthood and sacrifice. We are responsible for holding ourselves accountable both to God and the political powers that be. This means that we have both a spiritual and civic responsibility to vote.
What Should I Do?
- Register to vote today!
- If you’re already registered call your local Board of Elections and make sure your name has not been purged from the list.
- Contact three people and ask them to register and vote
- Determine your Voting Plan. Will you be voting by mail? Early in-person voting, or voting in-person on November 3rd? Decide now and get things in order today! You only have so much time to request your ballot and mail it in. Get on top of things now.
- Volunteer at your polling station. Help to ensure that not only is your vote counted, but the votes of others in your community are properly counted also.