Ethan Kuhstoss, Contributing Writer
The world has witnessed the American government’s inability to provide the bare minimum in voting rights to its people and the apathy of the Democratic Party in combating the immoral actions of the GOP with the death of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act in the Senate this week.
The right to vote has been under attack for minorities since the dawn of the United States. Black men were not granted the right to vote until the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870. Even after the amendment was passed, Black voters were subject to voting barriers including poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.
During the Civil Rights Movement, in response to the cultural and political pressure surrounding the unjust barriers to voting rights minorities experienced, former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), recognized as the most effective civil rights legislation passed by Congress by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Unfortunately, the American government has abandoned its promise to protect Constitutional voting rights. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelby County v. Holder that Section 5 of the VRA, which required historically discriminatory districts to receive approval from the DOJ before enacting voting-related legislation, was unconstitutional on the grounds of “racial entitlement.”
It is absolutely appalling that the Supreme Court could analyze the legacy of discrimination towards voters of color and determine that enacting legislative safeguards is a form of privilege. The systemic barriers to voting clearly demonstrate that minority citizens require their rights to be intentionally upheld, yet our government continues to do nothing.
The failed John R. Lewis Act would have mandated that Election Day be considered a federal holiday, prohibited gerrymandering, restored Section 5 of the 1965 VRA, expanded windows for early and mail-in voting and more.
With the government’s failure to pass the act, states are free to continue implementing discriminatory voting legislation without federal intervention. In the past year alone, 19 states passed 33 laws that negatively reformed the voting process.
It is utterly immoral and undemocratic to silence the voices of political dissidents, yet the GOP repeatedly passes legislation to ensure minorities, who predominantly vote for Democratic candidates, have difficulty voting.
Voting lines are approximately twice as long in predominantly minority communities nationwide, with these populations being six times more likely than whites to wait in line for over an hour to vote, according to Stephen Pettigrew, the Director of Data Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
The situation in Texas is a particularly dire example of the danger towards American democracy from unregulated state power.
Between 2012 and 2018, the 50 Texas counties with the highest increase of African American and Hispanic residents shut down 542 polling locations despite a population growth of 2.5 million; on the contrary, the 50 counties with the lowest uptick in minority groups only closed 34 polling locations despite the population decreasing by 13,000, a 2020 report from The Guardian revealed.
The rate at which Texas polling locations are shut down in predominantly minority compared to predominantly white communities clearly demonstrates the barriers to voting these groups face.
The states Georgia, Florida and Iowa further illustrate systemic voter suppression. Recent Georgia legislation has outlawed the distribution of food and drinks to voters waiting in line, while early voting periods have been limited in Iowa and the number of election drop boxes has been drastically reduced in Florida.
Thus, they have crafted the unfounded lie that mail-in voting is a threat to the legitimacy of our elections.
In reality, cybersecurity and infrastructure officials appointed by former President Donald Trump released a statement in 2020 stating “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history” despite seeing the highest number of nontraditional voting methods ever according to the U.S. Census. It is painfully obvious that this is a failed attempt to justify discriminatory policies for the sole purpose of perpetuating Republican power without winning American votes.
It would be in the interest of our democracy to outlaw these clearly prejudicial practices, an effort the Biden administration unsuccessfully attempted. Luckily, many states are taking the fight into their own hands.
Assembly Bill 37 in California requires the distribution of mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the state, which has resulted in “record voter participation.” In 2021, 25 states passed 62 laws to expand access through facilitating easier registration and voting processes.
Arguably the most comprehensive state voting reform occurred under former Gov. Ralph Northam, who passed the Voting Rights Act of Virginia in 2021. This act requires polling locations to provide ballots in other languages, be more accommodating to disabled residents, and empowers the Attorney General to sue in cases of voter suppression.
As the first voting rights act in the American South, the VRA of Virginia provides an example of necessary election reform that restores an equal voice to its constituents.
The threat towards American democracy is imminent. If left unchecked, states are fully capable of returning to an era of voter suppression in which minority communities are entirely disenfranchised. The only hope for completely free elections is to follow the lead of states such as California and Virginia by guaranteeing universal voting accessibility.