Our blog series Vote 2012 aims to educate and update voters as we head into the U.S. presidential elections of 2012.
Suppression of the right to vote has a long history in the United States. Over time, however, property qualifications for voting were eliminated and the 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments to the Constitution were adopted to end the exclusion of African Americans and women from the ballot. Section 2 of the 14th Amendment also banned other restrictions on the right to vote except by reason of age or participation in rebellion or other crimes.
At least so far as African Americans were concerned, these measures did not suffice, and it has been necessary for the courts to strike down such practices as poll taxes, white primaries, and blatantly discriminatory malapportionment. An example of the last of these was what happened in Tuskegee, Alabama. Until 1957, it was a square-shaped city with about 400 African American voters. That year, the state legislature made it a 28-sided city from which all but fewer than 10 African American voters were excluded. This was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals but that court was reversed unanimously by the United States Supreme Court.
Half a century ago, in 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights transmitted a landmark five-volume report to President John F. Kennedy and to the Senate and the House of Representatives. The 380-page first volume dealt with the right to vote. It focused particularly on abuses in about 100 counties of eight Southern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Aside from outright intimidation, which was common in that era, it identified a number of practices that were employed to suppress voting by African Americans. An example was a requirement of a specified number of registered voters to serve as “vouchers” to identify would-be voters. Where no African Americans were registered, this meant that none could vouch for new voters. In most of those places, no whites would vouch for African Americans. To ensure that a few renegade whites could not have much impact, rules were also enforced limiting the number of times a voter could vouch for another.
The Voting Rights Act and strenuous efforts by the United States Department of Justice under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and the struggles by civil rights workers of the 1960s in which a considerable number were murdered, helped to overcome many such restrictions on the right to vote.
For someone like me, who remembers those struggles well and took part in them (not by front-line participation in voter registration campaigns but by organizing support at a safe distance), it is particularly dismaying that suppression of the right to vote has again become an important factor in circumscribing the democratic process.
Today, suppression is not primarily a practice in eight Southern states. The phenomenon is nation-wide. It reflects the extreme partisanship of our era. Attempts are being made all across the country to exclude African Americans, students and other young people, and new citizens from registering and exercising their right to vote.
Half a century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court could be counted upon to turn thumbs down on the most blatant forms of discrimination. That is not the case today. If there were a counterpart today of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights of half a century ago, it would probably report that suppression of the vote is now as extensive or more extensive, than it was in that era. The struggle required to turn the tide may not have the lethal consequences of that which took place a half century ago, but it seems likely to be at least as difficult.