Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Voting Rights History: Two Centuries of Struggle



In part, this brief timeline describes an American history of oppression, persecution, and discrimination in regards to voting rights. In all of these cases those affected were not passive victims — rather they fought back with whatever means they had.
Similarly, much of this short summary is presented in the form of legislative and legal milestones. But all of those laws and court cases were the direct result of popular struggles and mass political pressure. In no case did benevolent legislators enact civil rights laws or magnanimous judges rule against discrimination without being forced to do so by we the people.

The stories of the freedom struggles and resistance to oppression that resulted in the milestones presented here would (and does) fill books. A single webpage cannot document the details of those battles, but it is crucial to remember that from every act of oppression grew a hundred forms of resistance. And every victorious milestone on the Freedom Road was achieved with blood, sweat, and tears.


The two main issues addressed by the southern Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were ending the "Jim Crow" system of segregation and winning the right to vote for Blacks (and Latinos, Native-Americans, Asians, and others) in the South and elsewhere.
But the Freedom Movement of the 1960s did not spontaneously spring up out of nowhere, nor did it disappear when its work was "done." Rather the Civil Rights Movement was but one episode in a centuries-long struggle for human freedom and civil rights that continues to this day. The Movement grew out of what came before and evolved into the struggles being waged today. Nothing illustrates this point better than the long battle for voting rights.

Voting Rights Milestones

In essence, the struggle for voting rights in America over the past two centuries has been a two-part battle. The first part was to win citizenship rights for people of color. The second part was to win voting rights for all citizens regardless of gender, economic status, race, or national origin.

1776: Abigail Adams asks the Continental Congress to support women's rights.

Her husband John Adams ridicules her request and vows to fight the "Despotism of the petticoat.

1776-1828: Struggle to remove religious restrictions

Between the first Continental Congress in 1776 and adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 the former colonies evolved into states, some of which barred Jews, Quakers, Catholics, and other "heretics," from voting or holding office. The 1778 Constitution of South Carolina, for example, stated that "No person shall be eligible to sit in the House of Representatives unless he be of the Protestant religion." The Delaware Constitution of 1776 stated that: "Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall ... also make and subscribe the following declaration, to wit:

I, A B. do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration."

When the new United States Constitution is adopted in 1787 (see below), Article VI prohibits religion restrictions: "... but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." But struggles to remove the pre-existing religious bars continue through the early 1800s, with Maryland finally extending voting rights to Jews in 1828.

1787: U.S. Constitution Adopted.

In the debates over adopting the U.S. Constitution there are bitter arguments over who should be allowed to vote. In particular, the slave-states insist that only white males be allowed to vote, yet they simultaneously demand that their Black slaves be counted when figuring up how many members of Congress each state is entitled to.

The Constitutional Convention cannot agree on any national voting-rights standard so they leave it up to each individual state. This results in an absurd system whereby the Federal government determines who can be a citizen for the nation as a whole, but each individual state determines which of their citizens have the right to vote.

Most of the states decree that only white males are eligible to vote, and most limit the vote to those white males who own a certain amount of property. (In other words, if you're an apprentice, or a renter, or homeless, you can't vote.) Since only a small minority of white males own enough property to qualify, the great majority of the population is denied the vote. By some estimates, less than 5% of the population is eligible to vote in the election of 1800.

(Note that under the original Constitution the only Federal office anyone could directly vote for was Congressman because the President was elected by the Electoral College, and Senators were appointed by the state governments. We still cannot directly vote for the President, which is why Bush occupied the White House in 2000 even though Gore received at least 500,000 more votes.)

1777-1807: Women lose the right to vote in all states.

The states of New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Jersey which had previously allowed women to vote rescind those rights. After 1807, no state allows women to vote.

1790: Citizenship limited to "whites."

The 1790 Naturalization Law explicitly states that only "free white" immigrants can become naturalized citizens. Since "white" is defined as pure European ancestry, this effectively prevents immigrants from anywhere else (or immigrants of mixed-race ancestry) from becoming naturalized citizens.

Under the myth that Native-Americans are "citizens" of their "sovereign" Indian "nations", (meaning the reservations), they cannot be citizens of the United States, therefore, Indians cannot vote.

1788-1856: Struggle to remove property restrictions.

For 68 years there are struggles and movements in the various states to remove the property restrictions on the right to vote. These battles are often bitter and occasionally violent.

1820-1865: Abolition movement to end slavery.

The first African slaves are brought to North American in 1619 (a year before the arrival of the Mayflower). Resistance begins immediately with intermittent slave uprisings and frequent escapes. Often the escaped slaves join Indian tribes who fight to defend tribal homelands against white encroachment and expansion of the slave system.

Political opposition to slavery among whites in the northern states begins to coalesce in the early 1820s. With the founding of the American Anti-Slave Society in 1833, a broad, inter-racial political movement committed to ending slavery commences — openly in the northern states, clandestinely in the south. This "Abolition Movement" grows in size and intensity and is met with increasingly violent opposition from slave-holders and slave states. Abolitionists are arrested, beaten, and murdered, their homes are burned and their presses destroyed.

But within the Abolition Movement there are bitter disagreements regarding the future of freed slaves. Some favor full citizenship including the right to vote, others advocate some form of 2nd-class citizenship without voting rights. Many want to expel freed slaves and send them "back" to Africa (though, of course, the vast majority of slaves have been born in America). In opposition to the Anti-Slave Society, these "colonizers" form the American Colonization Society which sends 20,000 former slaves to Africa where they carve out the nation of Liberia.

1836: Texas denies vote to Mexicans.

After revolting from Mexico in 1836, the short-lived Republic of Texas denies citizenship (and the right to own property) to anyone who had not supported the revolution. All non-Anglos are assumed to be part of that category — even those who had fought for the revolution.

When Texas is admitted to the union as a slave-state in 1845, the Mexicans remaining in Texas are granted U.S. citizenship and property-rights by the Federal government — in theory. But Mexican-Americans who try to independently vote face widespread beatings, burnings, and lynchings — except in cases where large landowners force their employees to vote as a group under supervision of their foremen who ensure that they all vote for the owner's preferred candidates.

After the Civil War, the methods used in Texas and other southern states to deny voting rights to Blacks are also applied to Mexican-Americans.

1848: Mexican-Americans are denied voting rights in the southwest.

Under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ends the Mexican-American war, Mexicans who remain in the new territories conquered by the U.S. are supposed to become full U.S. citizens according to legislation that Congress is supposed to pass.

For California that legislation takes the form of admitting it to the union as a state in 1850. While technically, U.S. citizens, Mexican-Americans in both Texas and California are denied the vote through violence and state "voter eligibility" laws. (In other words, in regards to voting there are similarities between the situations faced by Mexican-Americans and "free" Blacks.)
But the territories of Arizona and New Mexico are not admitted to the union as states until 1912. During the 64 years between the signing of the treaty and statehood, Mexican-Americans in those territories are held in a kind of non-citizen legal limbo without voting rights and where their other civil rights can be (and often are) easily violated. And, of course, they also suffer the same kind of violence and legal trickery that is being directed against Mexican-Americans in Texas and California.

1848-1920: Women's Suffrage Movement.

In 1848 the first Women's Rights Convention is held in Seneca Falls, NY. It demands that women be granted all rights as full citizens including the right to vote.

For the next 72 years women — and some male supporters — speak out, petition, lobby, sue, protest, march, and engage in civil-disobedience, for the right to vote. They brave beatings, mob attacks, rape, jail, seizure and destruction of property, forced-divorce (and consequent loss of children), forced-feeding of hunger strikers, and murder, to fight for their right to be full citizens.

1850: Asian immigration.

With the California gold rush, Asian immigration becomes significant for the first time, mostly in the West. Under the "whites-only" clause of the 1790 Naturalization Law, Asian immigrants cannot be citizens — but what about their children born in America? Government officials try to avoid this "problem" by preventing Asian women from coming ashore. Many are sent back, but some avoid detection and manage to get off the ship. And some Asian men marry women of other races — some of whom are citizens — what happens when their boys reach age 21?

1856: Property restrictions removed.

The last state to finally eliminate the property qualification is North Carolina in 1856.

1861-1865: Civil War and Emancipation.

The struggle against slavery eventually leads to bloody Civil War. 360,000 Union soldiers — Black and white — die to defeat slavery. That is 130 out of every 10,000 persons in the Northern states. (For comparison, deaths in the Vietnam War numbered 3 out of every 10,000.)

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the 13th Amendment (1865) eventually end slavery as a legal concept (though the actual treatment of share-croppers, tenant farmers, and plantation laborers continues to closely resemble slavery in all but the legal formalities).

But it is still left to individual states to determine who is eligible to vote. Some Northern states extend the vote to Blacks — but most states do not.

1867: 14th Amendment extends citizenship to Blacks.

Under the 14th Amendment all states are required to recognize Black (and white) males as citizens.

But for the first time women of all races are explicitly excluded in the Constitution from full citizenship in regards to voting.

1868: Women petition that women’s suffrage be included in the draft 15th Amendment.

The men of Congress deny their petition.

1870: 15th Amendment extends vote to Blacks.

Adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870 extends voting rights to Black males — in theory.

In reality, there is massive resistance to the intent of the 15th Amendment, particularly in the Southern states, but also in the North and Midwest. Violence and economic reprisal are used to intimidate and prevent Black men from voting.

The 15th Amendment does not apply to Native-Americans or Asians because they cannot be citizens. Similarly, it does not apply to Mexican-Americans in New Mexico and Arizona because they live in territories that are not yet states. While legally eligible to vote in Texas and California, Mexican-Americans are still denied the vote through violence and economic retaliation.

1867-1877: Reconstruction.

During the Reconstruction period hundreds of thousands of Black men risk their lives and property to vote, and many are elected to office. In fact, for a period in the late 1860s more African-Americans are registered to vote than whites in the states of the former Confederacy.

1877: End of reconstruction, abandonment of 15th Amendment.

Because of widespread cheating on both sides, the vote-count and outcome of the 1876 presidential election between Hayes the Republican and Tilden the Democrat is bitterly disputed — particularly the count in the state of Florida. In the end, all disputed counts are resolved by a special committee appointed by Congress. Republicans outnumber Democrats on the committee by 8 to 7. All disputes are decided in favor of the Republicans by a vote of 8 to 7. Hayes is declared the winner even though most impartial observers believe that Tilden won the popular vote.

It is widely understood that there's a backroom deal with the Democrats who represent the overwhelming majority of white voters in the South. In return for the Democrats accepting Hayes' victory, the Republicans promise that Hayes will remove the troops and officials who have been providing at least some limited protection to Blacks in the South. And that the new Hayes administration will cease enforcing the 15th Amendment and other civil rights laws. This deal becomes known as the "Compromise of 1877." The "compromise" being that the Republicans retain power in Washington while white-racists throughout the country are given free reign to oppress and persecute non-whites.

Hayes takes office, the troops and officials are removed. Civil rights enforcement ends:

  Reign of terror. The Ku Klux Klan and other racist terrorist organizations increase their attacks against African-Americans. Blacks are expelled from office. African-American males who try to vote are fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, beaten, and in many cases brutally lynched. Black property owners are burned out, Black businesses destroyed, and entire African-American towns are wiped out.

  Legal disenfranchisement. New state laws are passed to sabotage and render ineffective the 15th Amendment. Among these are the so-called "Literacy Tests" that make it impossible for non-whites to register, and "Grandfather-clauses" that restrict voting rights to those men whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote — a requirement that descendants of slaves cannot possibly meet.

  Poll taxes. Many states impose taxes on voting. Anyone — Black or white — who cannot afford to pay the tax cannot vote. Since the taxes are high and have to be paid in cash, voting is thus limited to affluent white males. In effect, this restores a property requirement for voting.

  Segregation laws. Laws mandating separation of the races in education, government services, public facilities & accommodations, restrooms, transportation, drinking fountains and so on are passed throughout the South and Midwest. Known as the "Jim Crow" system, their goal is to force African-Americans into feudal semi-slavery. The many Blacks who resist are beaten, jailed, and murdered. Similar systems are imposed in Western states against Latinos, Native-Americans, and Asians.

Within a few years most Blacks are removed from the voter registration rolls and denied the right to vote. All African-Americans who hold elected office are driven out. In Louisiana, for example, by 1900 fewer than 5,000 African-Americans are registered to vote, down from a high of 130,000.

1870-1923: Asians denied citizenship.

The Naturalization Act of 1870 amends the 1790 Naturalization Law to limit citizenship to "white persons and persons of African descent." Thus the ban preventing Asian and Latino immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens is continued.

But the wave of Asian immigration to California and other Western states in the mid-19th Century begins to weaken the "whites only" provision, particularly in regards to children who are born in the United States and are thus (presumptively) American citizens.

In 1898 the Supreme Court confirms that children of Asians who are born in the United States are automatically citizens. In response to this "yellow peril," over the following decades a series of "exclusion acts," such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and "gentlemen's agreements," and court rulings are put in place to limit (or prevent altogether) any further immigration by Asians.

As with African-Americans, Latinos, and Indians, violence, lynching, and economic retaliation are widely used against Asians whether they are citizens or not.

1878: Woman Suffrage Amendment introduced in Congress.

The amendment is introduced in 1878. It takes 42 years of courageous struggle to finally ratify it in 1920.

1890-1920: Some states grant women the right to vote.

First Wyoming, then Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, and California extend voting rights to women. Other states follow.

1913: 17th Amendment requires direct popular election of Senators.

After decades of political action and public pressure from the Populist movement, a constitutional amendment is passed requiring direct election of Senators by the people rather than Senators being appointed by state legislators.

1920: 19th Amendment extends right to vote to women.

After an epic 72-year struggle, women finally win the right to vote. But prejudice and discrimination against women candidates and office-holders continues for decades.

1924: Native-American citizenship.

Congress passes legislation extending United States citizenship to all Indians born in the United States. Many states continue to deny Native-Americans the right to vote using the same kinds of legal fictions, violence, and economic retaliation that is used to deny the vote to Blacks, Latinos, and Asians.

1942-1952: Asian citizenship rights.

In order to strengthen the U.S. military during WWII, Filipinos in the United States and the Philippine Islands are declared to be American citizens in 1942. This means that they are eligible for military service and the draft. (In 1946 this citizenship declaration is revoked by the Recission Act in order to deny Filipinos their veteran benefits, voting rights, and of course citizenship.)

To strengthen the WWII alliance with China, the Chinese Exclusion Acts are overturned in 1943.

In 1946 the exclusion acts against immigrants from the Indian subcontinent are repealed.

In 1952 all remaining Asian exclusion acts are replaced by the immigration "quota system" that allows for some Asian immigration but greatly favors European immigrants.

1944: "White-only" Primaries Ruled Unconstitutional.

After the "Compromise of 1877" ends Reconstruction, most southern Blacks are denied the vote. Out of loathing for Lincoln (a Republican), fury at their defeat by the hated "Yankees" in the Civil War, and rage at Emancipation of their Black slaves, southern whites refuse to vote for any Republican for any office — ever. Thus the "Solid South" comes into being — only Democrats can be elected. White southerners proudly declare themselves "Yellow-dog Democrats," meaning that if the Democratic Party nominates a yellow dog for office they will vote for the dog before they vote for a Republican candidate.

In practical terms, the "Solid South" means that the real election is the Democratic Primary because the Democrat who wins the nominatation inevitably wins the general election. In many southern states, the white-controlled Democratic Party decrees that only whites can vote in the Democratic primary. This effectively disenfranchises the few Blacks who have managed to register to vote because they are prevented from voting in the only elections that have any meaning (the primaries).

In 1944, NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall wins Smith v. Allwright in the U.S. Supreme Court which rules that "all-white" primary elections are unconstitutional.

1945-1960: GIs fight for civil rights.

When Black, Latino, and Indian GIs return from the battlefields of WWII (and later Korea), they demand that all American citizens have the right to vote regardless of race. They had fought and died for democracy abroad, yet they cannot vote at home. (One out of every eight American GIs was an African-American; Latinos and Native-Americans also made up significant portions of the armed forces, which for the most part were organized on a segregated basis.)

On local, state, and federal levels GIs fight against the laws, customs, and oppression denying them the vote and other civil rights. Before WWII the NAACP numbered around 50,000 members, in the post-war years it swells ten times to over 500,000.

But the racists who hold economic power and political office — particularly in the U.S. Senate — are too strong. Most legislative remedies are blocked and few court cases are successful. For the most part, the GI movements are defeated and suppressed. Many GIs who had fought to free Europe from Nazi tyranny find themselves imprisoned for demanding the right to vote, and others are viciously murdered — often by police and sheriffs.

Yet despite a wave of repression, they do manage to eliminate the poll tax in all but 5 states. And in 1948 the armed forces are de-segregated.

1948: State laws denying the vote to Native-Americans are overturned.

In one of the post-war period's few successful legal challenges, the Federal courts overturn the last state laws (Maine, Arizona, New Mexico) that explicitly prevent Indians from voting. Violence, economic retaliation, and different kinds of legal tricks continue to be used to prevent Native-Americans from voting.

1954-1960: Early Civil Rights Movement activity.

In the early 1950s, a number of school desegregation cases are filed in the federal courts by courageous students and parents who risk life and property by opposing the segregation system. In 1954 these cases are consolidated and won with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v Board of Education.

In 1955 and 1956 African-Americans opposed to segregation boycott the city busses in Montgomery Alabama and Tallahassee Florida. These successful boycotts mark significant victories against segregation in the deep south.

Hundreds of voting-rights lawsuits are filed in state and federal courts. Most are either defeated, or if won they are left unenforced. But Citizenship Schools, voter education projects, and "I'm a registered voter — Are you?" campaigns begin to proliferate among African-Americans at the grass-roots level across the south.

1960-1965: Civil Rights Movement demands the right to vote.

With the explosion of the direct-action phase of the Civil Rights Movement — sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, boycotts — voting rights and segregation emerge as the two central issues, intertwined and inseparable.

Participatory direct-action organizations such as CORE, SCLC, and SNCC take the fight for voting rights and de-segregation into the deepest depths of the racist South — Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia. The slogan becomes "One Man, One Vote," and instead of lawsuits the strategy is to organize people at the grass-roots to directly challenge and defy the entire "whites-only" system by demanding de-segregation and the right to vote face-to-face, county-by-county, state-by-state.

Resistance to Black voter registration and defense of segregation by the KKK and White Citizens Councils is ruthless. And the entire range of law-enforcement — from the cop on the beat to FBI Headquarters in Washington — mobilizes to defend the established order. Tens of thousands of would-be voters are fired or evicted, entire tent cities have to be set up to house share-croppers thrown off their land for trying to register to vote. Hundreds, then thousands are jailed. Beatings, burnings, and economic retaliation are wide-spread. Many — the actual number has never been counted — are murdered. This resistance to civil-rights is co-ordinated and orchestrated by powerful political and economic interests.

But the Movement soldiers on, we bury our dead and weep for our wounded but we don't turn back. The Movement explodes in Albany, Americus, Birmingham, Bogalusa, Cambridge, Canton, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Danville, Gadsden, Gainesville, Greenwood, Greensboro, Hattiesburg, Jackson, McComb, Monroe, Montgomery, Nashville, New Orleans, Rock Hill, Ruleville, St. Augustine, Selma, Shreveport, Tallahasse, and a thousand other towns and hamlets. It is a mass Movement of people, not lawyers or lobbyists (though they too play important roles).

1964: 24th Amendment ends poll taxes.

The 24th Amendment prohibits poll taxes in federal elections.

1964-1965: Freedom Summer and the Selma to Montgomery March

During the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 close to a thousand civil rights workers of all races and backgrounds from across the country converge on Mississippi to support voting rights and confront segregation. This is followed in August by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's challenge to the whites-only Mississippi delegation at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City. The self-evident justice of that challenge is ignored by Johnson and Humphrey and the challenge is denied.

A few months later mass protests and marches begin in Selma Alabama. Thousands of African-Americans put their lives on the line by attempting to register to vote in Selma and surrounding counties. They are met with savage violence from police and Klan. They face beatings, gassing, jailings, and murder. Mass marches in Selma, Montgomery, Demopolis, Marion, Camden and elsewhere are viciously attacked. Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, Viola Luizzo, and Jonathan Daniels are murdered. But the people refuse to back down and the movement grows as thousands of Americans from all walks of life come to Selma in support. 25,000 people — of all races —  march to the Statehouse in Montgomery Alabama, the "cradle of the Confederacy."

1965: Passage of Voting Rights Act.

It takes 57 days of floor-fighting and mass protests in the streets of Washington to break the filibuster by Southern Senators determined to block the Voting Rights Act. For just the second time in history, a southern filibuster on a civil-rights issue is defeated on a bitterly divided vote. The Act is passed.

Though in some respects weaker than what had been hoped for, among other provisions the Voting Rights Act:

  Outlaws voting phony "requirements" — such as "literacy tests," — designed to deny the vote to people based on their race or color. This applies not only to Blacks but also to Indians, Asians, and Mexican-Americans.

  Authorizes the Federal government to take over registration of voters in areas where local officials have consistently denied voting rights to non-whites.

  Establishes that fluency in English cannot be made a requirement for voting eligibility.

1966: Voting Rights Act takes effect.

By the end of the 1965, some 250,000 new Black voters have been registered in the South. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the 13 southern states have fewer than 50 percent of African-Americans registered to vote. In the following years, Black registration in Alabama grows more than ten-fold, from 50,000 in 1960 to more than 500,000 in 1990. And by 1990, the number of southern Black legislators has risen from 2 to 160 — an increase of 8000%.

But though the legal barriers to voter registration are weakened or overturned by the Voting Rights Act, terror and economic retaliation continue to be used for a few more years against citizens-of-color who try to register to vote, particularly Blacks in the South and Latinos and Native-Americans in the Southwest. The Civil Rights Movement continues the fight, with the "Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear," and mass direct-action campaigns in towns such as Grenada and Natchez Mississippi.

1966: Poll taxes outlawed in state elections.

The Supreme Court finally rules that the use of poll taxes in state elections violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The last remaining poll taxes are eliminated.

1970: 26th Amendment lowers voting age to 18.

Faced with widespread protests against the Vietnam war and growing resistance to the military draft, the voting age is lowered to equal the draft age. (Anti-war protests and draft resistance continue.)

1975: Extension of Voting Rights Act to "language minorities."

The Voting Rights Act is expanded to address voting rights of "language minorities." Based on the determination that voting discrimination against language minorities "is pervasive and national in scope," provisions are added to ensure that citizens who speak languages other than English are not denied their voting rights. For example, non-English voting materials and assistance now have to be provided where needed.

2000: Republican-directed disenfranchisement of Blacks in Florida.

Prior to the election of 2000, Jeb Bush the Republican Governor of Florida — and brother of Presidential candidate George Bush — hires a private company long associated with the Republican party to "purge" the Florida voting rolls of "ineligible" voters. Along with voters who really are ineligible, tens of thousands of legally registered Black voters are illegally stripped from the rolls. When they arrive at the polls on election day, they are told they cannot vote.

This denial of voting rights to African-American voters in Florida is the direct cause of George Bush's supposed 537 vote "victory" in that state. It is this phony "win" (plus the votes of the 5 Republican appointees on the Supreme Court) that makes him President,

even though Gore receives 500,000 more votes nation-wide than Bush.

According to the report issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil rights:

  Widespread voter disenfranchisement — not the dead-heat contest — was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election.

  Violations of the Voting Rights Act occurred in Florida and there was widespread denial of voting rights.

  Black voters were nearly 10 times more likely than non-Black voters to have their ballots rejected.

  The state's highest officials responsible for ensuring fairness in the election failed to fulfill their responsibilities and were subsequently unwilling to take responsibility.
Had tens of thousands of Black voters not been illegally denied their right to vote, Democratic candidate Al Gore would certainly have carried the state by a comfortable margin — and he would have been President.

Today: Voting rights and the criminal justice system

1.4 million Black men (13% of adult African-American males) are denied the right to vote because they served time in prison. In 5 states, (including Florida), more than one-in-four adult male, African-Americans are disenfranchised. Latinos and Native-Americans are similarly affected.

From 1980 to 2000 the number of prisoners in the U.S. increased by more than 300% (while total population increased by only 24%). At the present rate of incarceration, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 6.6% of Americans born in 2001 will spend time in prison. This is the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Despite having served their sentences and paid their penalties, many states disenfranchise ex-prisoners after their release:

  • 14 states disenfranchise former inmates for life.

  • 32 states disenfranchise former inmates while on parole.

  • 29 states disenfranchise former inmates on probation.

Today: Voter Suppression

Beginning with the bitterly-contested Presidential election of 2000, political parties are increasingly devoting energy and money towards "suppressing" the turnout of demographic groups who traditionally favor the other side. The Republican Party is particularly active in targeting naturalized immigrant citizens, Blacks, Latinos, and those seniors who traditionally vote Democratic. Suppression tactics include both legal ploys and outright deceit. Some examples include:

  • Voter ID laws. In a number of states, Republicans have passed laws requiring voters to show a photo-ID before they can cast their ballots. These laws discourage voting by the elderly and poor who are less likely to own a car and are thus less likely to posses a valid drivers license or other form of photo ID.

  • Targeted voter purges. In Georgia and other states, minority, immigrant, and college-student voters have been disproportionately "purged" from the rolls on various pretexts.

  • Deceit. Political "dirty tricks" are increasingly being used by both parties to suppress voter turnout of those who tend to favor the other side. Examples include false notification that polling places have been changed, directing voters to phony email or web addresses where they can supposedly vote online, conducting voter-registration drives and then failing to turn in those forms where a voter registered for the opposing party, mass-mailings of counterfeit absentee ballots with false return addresses, and so on.

Tomorrow: The fight to have our votes count.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries we fought to expand the right to vote. The voting rights struggle of the 21st Century will be to have our votes count. Not the right to have our votes counted — though as we saw in Florida in 2000, that too may be a crucial issue — but rather the right to have our votes mean something.

  • The best democracy that money can buy. In the so-called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Republican-appointed 5-vote conservative majority on the Supreme Court decreed in 2010 that secret unlimited corporate funding for political ads is a form of Constitutionally protected "free speech." This decision dramatically shifts electoral influence away from individual voters by allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to covertly buy the election results they want with a flood of cash. At the same time, super-sized corporate campaign contributions given directly to candidates have become a legally-sanctioned form of outright bribery.

  • Un-elected global government. As more and more of us have won the right to vote, the power to make critical decisions has been moved out of the hands of elected local, state, and federal officials and into the grasp of un-elected global commissioners appointed and controlled by multi-national corporations. More and more, the vital decisions that affect our lives — decisions on the economy, trade, jobs, environment, worker-safety, privacy, communication, and so much more — are being made by world "trade" organizations such as the WTO, GATT, NAFTA, TRIPS, FTAA, and so on, who debate the issues that affect our lives in secret and issue decrees that cannot be appealed or amended. And their decisions over-ride those made by our elected officials at all levels.

The struggle continues ...

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