Given what an integral part voting plays in the democracy of the United States, it is interesting that there is no mention of voting rights in the Constitution. This has allowed for each state to cultivate their own standards and regulations, unless a federal law was passed that was applicable to each state. When the United States was founded, only white men with property were permitted to vote. White men who were not property owners, women and all people of color were denied this right. By the start of the Civil War all white men were permitted to vote whether or not they owned property. Women and people of color (including Native Americans) were still excluded.
In 1866, almost one hundred years after the founding of the United States, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, guaranteeing citizenship to former slaves. In 1869 the 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote. However, 1869 also marked the beginning of the “Black codes,” state laws which restricted the freedoms of Black people. Literacy test, poll taxes, hiding the locations of the polls, economic pressures, threats of physical violence, religious tests and other strategies were used to prevent Black people from exercising their right to vote.
Women gained the vote in 1920 and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, implemented largely due to the pressures created by the Civil Rights movement, banned literacy tests and provided federal enforcement of voting registration in areas where racism and prejudice were particularly prevalent. This brings us to the present, and the new voting regulations which some have projected will leave millions unable to vote. Within the first nine months of 2011, 19 new voting laws and 2 executive orders were passed in 14 states, and there are another 42 bills pending.
In Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, voters must present state-issued photo ID in addition to their voter registration card when going to vote. Approximately 3.3 million eligible voters in those states, which amounts to the 11% of the overall eligible voter population, do not have state-issued photo ID. Alabama, Tennessee and Kansas now require documentary proof of citizenship of people registering to vote. Florida and Texas have passed restrictions on voter registration and voter registration drives and Maine has completely removed same day voter-registration. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia have passed laws that reduce access to early voting. Florida and Iowa have reversed policies intended to restore voting eligibility to convicted felons. It seems clear that all across the country, people’s right to take part in their democracy is under attack.
Might these “voting regulations” be a revival of the Black Codes? The difference of 5 million votes could make a impactful change in the outcome of future elections. Black people must make themselves aware of these new regulations, so that they will not be barred from casting their votes on the basis of a technicality. All Americans must defend their right to cast their opinion on the direction this country should be headed in.
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