The Fragility of Voting Rights: THE 2020 U.S. ELECTION
Text by LINDA GELLER-SCHWARTZ, picture: ISTOCK BY GETTYIMAGES
On July 30, 2020, when the iconic civil rights leader Representative John Lewis was laid to rest, his final message to the American people was conveyed in a letter published in the New York Times. It included this advice and caution: “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.” Representative Lewis knew all too well of what he spoke.
The history of voting rights in America has been the story of a period of expansion of voting rights followed by periods of backlash and retrenchment. The simple theory that all citizens in a democracy should have the right to vote, while championed as a principle, has seldom been accepted in practice. Rather, both major parties, at various points of history, have operated on the premise that if you can define the electorate by excluding some citizens and including others, you can win or maintain power and keep the “other guys” out. A view has developed in the U.S. that access to the vote is not a “right”, but a “privilege”. And, if it is a privilege, it must be earned — and it can also be lost.
States have broad discretion
The American Constitution, specifically the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments, established a framework for voting rights in the United States. But unlike many other countries where the rules governing the electoral system are strictly national, U.S. states have broad discretion in determining qualifications for suffrage within their jurisdictions and managing their own election systems. The result has been a continuous struggle at both the federal and state levels over voting rights, particularly over the right of Black Americans to vote.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1870, after the Civil War, states that: ”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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, the Southern states during the Reconstruction period did everything within their power to maintain Black disenfranchisement and thwart the Fifteenth Amendment. They designed impossible literacy tests, imposed poll taxes or just resorted to violence to stop Blacks from registering to vote.
Decades of disenfranchisement and violence followed, culminating in the dramatic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. When Rep. John Lewis led hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus bridge in March 1965 and was met by brutal attacks from state law enforcement, the public finally demanded real change.
A new coverage formula needed
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in this country. Its most potent provision was the requirement that certain states and localities (known as “covered jurisdictions”) who had a history of discrimination get preclearance from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C. before they made any changes in voting practices. This one remedy resulted in enormous change, particularly in the South. About one million new voters were registered within a few years after the bill became law, bringing African-American registration to a record 62 percent…