The Long Struggle to Expand and Protect Voting Rights

November 6, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

The evolution of the nation’s democratic process has been arduous, tragic and bloody. And the process which still excludes too many remains a work in progress.  

It took a Civil War, constitutional amendments and eradication of Jim Crow for African Americans to be able to participate in democracy. But dogged bigots still worked on ways to keep blacks from the polls. The Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965, was a step by the federal government to drag recalcitrant states into line and stop harassment and oppression of African Americans at the polls. We now have several states with long, tawdry histories of discriminating against minorities at the polls, fighting to gut a major enforcement provision of the VRA. (Some of those state officials, in Alabama, for instance argue that discrimination at the polls does not exist anymore and therefore Section 5 of the VRA needs to be dumped. Congress, however, has found ample evidence that discrimination against minorities at the polls is not a thing of the past.)

It wasn’t until 1920 when women gained the right to vote via a constitutional amendment. In summer 1920 the 19th Amendment was ratified after a close vote in the Tennessee legislature. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of Sex,” it reads. And the ratification of the 19th Amendment didn’t happen overnight; it was nearly a 70-year work in progress.   

Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan notes a “quick and comprehensive lesson” on voting rights, linking to a video, “Democracy Distilled: Examining the Evolution of our Nation’s Voting Rights.”

The video, less than 4 minutes, notes, “When our nation was founded, voting rights were anything but equal. The freedoms we have today represent two centuries of successes and failures made by individuals constantly battling to make their voices heard.” Watch it here, or below the jump.

The “battle” for voting rights though is one that we will likely drag on. The Supreme Court has given corporations greater power drown out individual voices and there remain too many state efforts to make voting difficult.

Rightwing lawmakers in a string of states continue to argue our elections are wrought with voter fraud, calling for rigid restrictions on voting to enhance or protect “integrity” of the vote. As we’ve noted here and here, Ohio and Florida officials have gone out of their way to making voting an incredible pain, with creating ridiculously rigid voter ID laws, obstacles for voter registration drives, and limits on early voting times.

These laws have been derided by former President Bill Clinton and an array of elections law experts as modern day disenfranchisement efforts, beyond being wholly unnecessary.

Earlier this year, Loyola School of Law Professor Justin Levitt noted in an ACS Issue Brief that the “franchise is referenced in two Articles and at least ten Amendments of the Constitution. It is central to our constitutional order ….”

Instead of erecting obstacles to voting, lawmakers would do a great service to the franchise by making it easier to vote, for all Americans, not just those who have the time and luxuries to overcome the hurdles that are created. But history shows us that those lawmakers bent on limiting the franchise will always have a battle on their hands, ones they eventually lose.