The historical connection to modern voter suppression
Voting rights in the United States have long been an issue in the United States, and sometimes it can be easy to forget that the fight for suffrage for many citizens (including women and people of color) has been long and hard, with something close to universal suffrage not being achieved until the 1960s.
We begin with Alexander Keyssar, Sterling professor of history and social policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, who wrote a piece in the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine discussing the recent wave of restrictive voting legislation called Voter Suppression Returns. The entire piece is worth reading, as Keyssar makes convincing connections between modern voter ID laws and the long history of voting rights in the United States. Keyssar goes on to talk about the historical ties to current legislation:
The recent wave of ID laws (and their cousins) bears a close resemblance to past episodes of voter suppression, particularly those of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The laws seem tailored less to guarantee the integrity of elections than to achieve a partisan purpose; the targeted constituencies—those directly affected by the laws—tend, once again, to be the poor, the less advantaged, or members of minority groups. It may not be a coincidence that the phrase “voter suppression”—like “vote suppression” in the 1880s—has become a prominent part of our political vocabulary during an era of large-scale immigration and in the wake of a dramatic extension of voting rights to African Americans.
Meanwhile, The Nation and Colorlines have teamed up on their Voting Rights Watch 2012 blog, and in their first post bring up the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who challenged segregation in Mississippi by registering to vote:
Over the last few years, the narrative about voting rights has drastically changed. We know that the history of who can and cannot vote in the United States is fraught with discrimination against women, the poor and people of color. Some fifty years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer decided to risk her livelihood (to whatever extent sharecropping can be considered a livelihood) and her very life to fight against voter suppression. It was people like Hamer who saw the transformative possibilities attached in simply exercising one’s right to register to vote, and this is what eventually helped secure the Voting Rights Act.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have faced additional challenges in obtaining the right to vote. North Dakota was restricting the right to vote in heavily American Indian counties until 1975. Demos today released a report, Ensuring Access to the Ballot for American Indians & Alaska Natives, which looks at the history of voter suppression in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, while also providing policy recommendations for improved outreach:
Given the history of manipulation, discrimination and forcible exclusion from the voting process, the federal government has an affirmative duty to encourage and support voter participation by American Indians and Alaska Natives today. The time is now for the federal government to send a strong and simple message to the Native communities: we recognize that government and civic participation in America began with American Indians and Alaska Natives, and therefore your voices should be heard at every level of government with respect to the issues that confront your families, tribes, and the country. It should be made clear that American Indians and Alaska Natives do not need to decide between supporting tribal government and tribal sovereignty and participating in U.S. elections. Both activities must be fully respected by the federal government.
Between the start of its history and the late 1960s, the United States came a long way in becoming a more representative democracy. However, as evidenced by the challenges faced by some populations, voter suppression continues to this day, and has only continued to spread through new state laws. Keyssar closes his piece with this:
Whatever the numbers turn out to be, the laws themselves are unworthy of a modern, sophisticated nation that identifies itself as democratic. They are not effective policy instruments; they chip away at the core democratic value of inclusiveness; and they resonate with the worst, rather than the best, of our political traditions.