As conservatives in some states continue to assault the fundamental right of citizens to vote by purging voter rolls, requiring certain ID’s and adding onerous burdens to dissuade folks from voting, it’s important to note that this is nothing new.
In fact, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the Republican Party’s effort to put a halt to the former Confederate states’ and some former Union states’ efforts to prevent the newly freed slaves from exercising the franchise.
Voting, or the ability to have a say or at least the appearance of a voice, is seen as a fundamental, basic, guaranteed right in American democracy. Taxation without representation is what led to this country’s violent break with its then-colonial master England.
The right to vote is seen in the U.S. as one of the most fundamental tenets of the nation’s democracy. However, historically many people who qualified as citizens of the republic were denied the right to vote from the beginning, including women and poor white men. In the early days of the Republic, the franchise was given only to white males who owned property.
Immediately after the Civil War, as a result of Union soldiers being stationed in Southern states, newly freed slaves were allowed to vote.
The Reconstruction amendments included the 13th, which outlawed slavery, and the 14th, which granted citizenship to the freed slaves as well as guaranteeing equal protection under the law.
The 15th Amendment was passed by the United States Congress in 1869 in a move designed to assure the right to vote to its newly freed ex-slaves.
Historically, the 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to do what the 15th Amendment was designed to accomplish, which was to assure that Black people, especially in the Southern states, could cast their ballots. Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act required states and local governments with histories of racial discrimination in voting to submit all changes to their voting laws or practices to the federal government. Once approved, they could take effect, a process called “preclearance.”
While the right to vote by U.S. citizens has never been in question, who can vote is still being hotly contested in the U.S. as various states continually seek to find ways to prevent people from voting, especially Black and Brown people.
Black people’s political power is diminished by the fact that incarceration serves as a disqualification from the voting rolls, especially since a higher percentage are locked up by the bias inherent in the U.S. justice system. Moreover, though the first section of the 15th Amendment declared that the right to vote cannot be “denied or abridged” because of “a previous condition of servitude,” ex-prisoners are consistently denied the right to vote, a clear violation of the spirit of the amendment.
Apparently, judging from the history of Blacks and the vote, it is a right as long as they are willing to fight for it.
W.E.B. DuBois observed, “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”