Republicans Reverse a 150-year-old Trajectory in US and Enact Laws That Restrict Voting Rights
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Andrey Burmakin
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For its first 200 years the American Republic slowly, sometimes infuriatingly slowly and at horrific human cost (e.g. the Civil War) expanded the franchise.
In 1870 the 15th Amendment gave blacks the right to vote. In 1920, the 19th Amendment extended the franchise to women. In 1924 Congress granted Native Americans citizenship and thus the right to vote. In 1961 the 23rdAmendment gave the residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote for President. In 1971 the 26thAmendment gave l8 year olds the vote. In 1986 Congress gave military personnel and other US citizens living abroad the right to use a federal write-in absentee ballot for voting for federal offices.
The right to vote, however, did not ensure that one could vote. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, states began passing legislation directed at restricting minority voting with often dramatic effect, especially in the South where turnout fell from 64.2 percent in 1888 to 29.0 percent in 1904.
For 100 years after the Civil War the Supreme Court ruled that even where state voting rules were discriminatory, the federal government had no right to intervene. Then in 1965 Congress finally gave blacks and other minorities the effective vote by passing the Voting Rights Act, eliminating most voting qualifications beyond citizenship for state and federal elections, including literacy tests and poll taxes. In 1966 the Supreme Court affirmed that law.
Since 1970 federal and state voting reforms have all moved in one direction: facilitating access. In 1993 the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) offered citizens the opportunity to register or re-register to vote at many public facilities, including Motor Vehicle offices and post offices.
Between 1973 and 2009 nine states enacted Election Day registration laws. States made provisions for early voting and eased the rules on absentee voting. Some allowed voting by mail. Between 1997 and 2010 twenty-three states either restored voting rights or eased the restoration process of voting rights for those convicted of felonies.
Virtually all these laws were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by Republican and Democrat Governors alike.
The Tide Turns
And then came November 2010. An unprecedented politically tsunami swept the country. Conservative Republicans won a remarkable 675 seats in state legislatures, gaining control of both houses in 27 states and control of both houses and the governor office in 23.
Once in control Republicans once again exposed a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals focus on process. Republicans focus on outcomes.
The Republicans first priority after gaining power was to ensure continued power by reducing the turnout of demographic groups like students, blacks, Hispanics that traditionally vote Democrat.
The groundwork had been laid by a 2008 Supreme Court decision. In 2006 Indiana became the first state to require a government issued photo ID for voting. The Supreme Court upheld that law. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing the main opinion opined that the requirement “is amply justified by the valid interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process.”
Amply justified? An Amicus Brief filed by the Brennan Center for Justice found no justification at all. After exhaustively examining the briefs to the Supreme Court, Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center for Justice concluded, “not one of the sources cited shows proof of a vote that Indiana’s law could prevent. That is, not one of the citations offered by Indiana or its allies refers to a proven example of a single vote cast at the polls in someone else’s name that could be stopped by a poll site photo ID rule.” The Center described the fraud targeted by Indiana’s law “more rare than death by lightning.”