I met Representative John Lewis in 1993 while I was interning in Washington, D.C. As a sharecropper’s son, Lewis would preach to his father’s chickens as a young boy. He gave them names and even baptized them because he wanted to be a minister. Instead, he went on to become one of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders.
In Representative Lewis’s final words, he reminded us that “the vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.”
That’s why I’m calling our attention to the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the amendment that gave predominantly white women the right to vote. In too many cases, when we think about the 19th Amendment, we forget about this racial nuance. We forget that most of our sisters of color had to wait until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to have free and fair access to the ballot box. And unfortunately, the road to universal enfranchisement didn’t end there.
Since 2013, we’ve witnessed an expansive rebirth of voter suppression policies, so much so that the U.S. ranks 57th in election integrity in the world—second to last among our liberal democratic peers.
COVID-19. The shooting of Breonna Taylor. The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Christian Cooper’s treatment in Central Park. Consider 2020 our wake-up call to reverse the trend of systemic voter suppression, strengthen the foundation of our democracy, and bend the arc of history toward inclusion.
How we arrived at this level of democracy
The human brain excels at responding to near-term threats in our immediate environment. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t so great at responding to long-term threats that have a far-reaching impact.
Perhaps that’s why, in 2013, “The Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Perhaps in their Shelby County v. Holder ruling, our Supreme Court justices failed to recognize the long-term consequence of their decision. Consequences that not only impact those immediately affected by the 2013 ruling, but everyone living the great experiment of American democracy.
Prior to that ruling, the federal government oversaw changes to voting laws in jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination. This oversight provided an extra layer of election integrity to ensure that all Americans had free and fair access to the polls. In one swift ruling, the Supreme Court took that oversight away, giving states the green light to change voting laws as they see fit. And change the laws they did.
What modern-day voter suppression looks like
As history has shown us, voter suppression tactics are highly adaptable. Decades ago, these tactics took the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, and “good character” clauses. Today, they have largely transformed into voter purging, strict voter ID requirements, and felony disenfranchisement.
For Christine Jordan, the cousin of Martin Luther King Jr, voter suppression meant showing up to her polling location in 2018 only to find that her name had been purged from the state’s voting rolls. There was no record of her voter registration despite the fact that she had voted in every election since 1968.
Jordan’s situation is not unique. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 17 million people were purged from voter rolls. And compared to the period between 2006 and 2008, the number of names purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 increased by 33%. For reference, the number of registered voters during this same period increased by only 18%, the total population by only 6%.
Between 2012 and 2016, jurisdictions that had previously required federal pre-clearance to change voting laws had remarkably higher purge rates than jurisdictions not subject to federal pre-clearance. In Jordan’s home state of Georgia, the number of people purged from voter rolls doubled between the 2008 and 2012 elections and the 2012 and 2016 elections.
ID requirements and felony disenfranchisement
If not voter purging, then tactics such as strict voter ID requirements and felony disenfranchisement effectively keep Black people from the polls. As it stands, 18 states enforce strict photo ID requirements to vote. Such criteria pose problems for the 25% of Black citizens (versus 8% of white citizens) of voting age who lack a government-issued ID.
In Texas, where at least 80% of handgun license owners are white, people can vote using their handgun license, but not a student ID from a state university. And yet, underrepresented racial groups make up more than half of the students in the University of North Texas system alone.
As for felony disenfranchisement, levels of severity vary by state. For instance, 48 states restrict the right to vote for those convicted of felonies; however, three states (Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia) disenfranchise convicted felons for life. Only Maine and Vermont allow convicted felons to participate in democracy without restraint.
The impact of felony disenfranchisement falls disproportionately on Black Americans, 7.7% of whom have lost their right to vote as a result of these restrictions, compared to 1.8% of non-Black Americans in similar situations.
The long-term damage of such voter suppression, however, falls on every American because it weakens our source of strength as a nation. In the words of our first Black president, Barack Obama, the U.S. is “the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting.”
Guaranteeing full enfranchisement is key to strengthening our democracy
America is the revolutionary idea of self-government. That the government derives its power from the governed. It is a social contract between the people and their government. The foundation of a strong and high-functioning democracy is enfranchisement: the ability of the governed to elect their representatives.
The first three months of COVID-19 quickly revealed the profound impact of systemic racial inequities, including voter suppression, that beset our democracy. That’s why 2020 is our year to take action. It’s our year to stand forward on election integrity, to guarantee the right to vote for every citizen, and to bend the arc of history toward inclusion. Here’s how we can do that.
Prevent long lines at the polls Long wait times not only discourage people from voting; they also jeopardize the economic security of the working class, who may not have the privilege to take time off work to vote. And as we saw in the 2018 elections, Black and Hispanic voters waited almost 45 and 46% longer than white voters, respectively. The deli-counter method could prevent lines from accumulating at voting polls by giving voters a ticket indicating what time they can expect to vote. This method would also help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Re-enfranchise convicted felons Congress should follow Florida’s lead, which in 2018 passed a measure to re-enfranchise nearly 1.4 million people. Similar action at the federal level would give the right to vote back to the millions of Americans who have lost it but are no longer in prison.
Encourage voting by mail Voting by mail, when done right (unlike Wisconsin’s latest round of primaries), can improve voter turnout and support efforts to curb the transmission of COVID-19. Allowing access to the ballot via mail means people don’t have to choose between democracy and their health.
Initiate automatic voter registration Create a system that automatically registers citizens to vote when they interact with the DMV and other government offices. This automatic voting registration would communicate electronically with election officials and save time, money, and confusion.
Restore the Voting Rights Act
Finally, we must work to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Doing so would return federal oversight to historically discriminatory jurisdictions and bolster election integrity in our political institutions.
How will you shore up voting rights?
COVID-19 and the recent racial justice protests have shown us that the great experiment of American democracy is still being tested. We have cracks in the system, and it’s time to fix them once and for all. We are getting closer to the presidential election in November. How are our candidates planning to shore up voting rights, especially for our Black brothers and sisters, in future elections?
Katica Roy is the founder and CEO of Pipeline Equity.