It’s been 55 years since the Voting Rights Act, and we still don’t have equal voting rights
by Andrew Lee and Huanvy Phan
Today, we want to commemorate civil rights icon John Lewis and his contributions towards the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which celebrates its fifty-fifth anniversary today. This landmark piece of federal legislation has enfranchised millions of voters of color ever since its passage in 1965, and represents one of Lewis’s greatest contributions to his fight for racial justice. Without the leadership and activism of John Lewis and other Black movement leaders, many of our AAPI communities would not have the access to voting that we do today. By celebrating John Lewis and his dedication to fighting for the marginalized and disempowered, we call for an end to voter suppression laws that continue to disenfranchise communities of color today.
Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black Americans had already gained the right to vote a century earlier. After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment was passed in 1970, which prohibited states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Although this amendment did not extend to Black women or other women of color, the 15th Amendment would have enfranchised millions of recently freed Black men.
However, segregationist Jim Crow laws were soon implemented in the South, where most Black Americans lived. These laws prevented Black men from exercising their right to vote. One egregious example is literacy tests, which required a person to read a section of the state constitution and explain it to the county clerk to be registered to vote. This law targeted Black Americans, as centuries of educational discrimination led to a high rate of illiteracy in Black communities.
Voter suppression was also carried out through racial violence and intimidation: white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan harassed, threatened, and even murdered Black voters. While Black women gained the right to vote under the 19th Amendment in 1920, they also faced the same white supremacist tactics of voter suppression which prevented them from exercising their rights. When John Lewis was born in 1940, only 3 percent of voting-age Black men and women in the South were registered to vote.
Growing up in an openly racist society, John Lewis was no stranger to the discrimination Black communities faced under segregation. He was born on a sharecropping farm owned by a white man in rural Alabama, his family owning little to call their own.
In 1958, he became inspired to fight for change after learning about the emerging preacher Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycotts. A student in Nashville at the time, Lewis met with civil rights activists and eventually helped organize the first sit-ins to demand service at whites-only lunch counters. The sit-ins became the first civil disobedience tactics used by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a youth-led organization of the Civil Rights movement that Lewis helped found.
Over the next couple of years, Lewis and SNCC organized more demonstrations against racial segregation in the South; he was among the first thirteen Freedom Riders who protested against the segregated interstate bus system, as well as being one of the organizers of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
On March 7, 1965, he led a group of around 600 people demanding their voting rights in a march from Montgomery to Selma. As he marched partway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he and other demonstrators were attacked by state troopers who viciously attacked them with tear gas, bullwhips, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Lewis himself was hit on the head twice by a billy-club wielding officer, knocking him to the ground and cracking his skull.
The brutality Lewis and the other protestors endured from state violence was nationally televised, swinging public opinion in favor of Civil Rights activists and pressuring the U.S. government to pass the Voting Rights Act five months later. Its passage had immediate effects: in Mississippi alone, voter turnout among Black Americans increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. The Voting Rights Act transformed the political power of Black Americans and other people of color, giving previously disenfranchised communities a chance to shape their own political futures in America.
In 1986, John Lewis was elected as a representative of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, and became the second Black American to be sent to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction. As a congressman, Lewis continued to champion the rights of marginalized and disempowered peoples in the U.S. and around the world: he was arrested for demonstrating against apartheid outside the South African Embassy, and he led another sit-in on the House floor to protest federal inaction on gun control after the Orlando nightclub massacre. On the recent Black Lives Matter movement, Lewis said that it felt “much more massive and all inclusive” and that “there will be no turning back.” Although he passed away just last month, his legacy lives on in the activists who fight to end voter suppression today.
Over half a century later, we still don’t have equal voting rights and protections.
In 2013, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in Shelby County v. Holder that allowed local governments in states with historical discriminatory voting practices to change their voting policies without federal approval. The impact of Shelby County v. Holder (2013) has been devastating for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities. Since the ruling, research has shown significant increases in discriminatory voting laws and practices, especially in states with historical voter discrimination. There are six key voter suppression strategies that impact every stage of the voting process:
- Gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating geographical district boundaries of constituencies to favor a specific party over another — which intentionally clusters voters of color into fewer districts in order to dilute their voting power. This occurs especially in closely-divided states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin.
2. Felony disenfranchisement, which disproportionately affects Black people due to racist structures in the criminal justice system. Iowa, for example, has the most disproportionate incarceration rate of Black people in the U.S. As a result, one in four voting-age Black men in Iowa cannot vote for the rest of their lives.
3. Voter registration restrictions, such as limiting the window of time when voters can register. In the 2016 presidential election, over 90,000 voters in New York were unable to vote because their registration applications did not meet the cutoff, and the state had the 8th worst turnout in the country.
4. Strict voter ID laws and eliminating access to obtaining IDs. North Carolina attempted to implement a voter identification bill after specifically researching the types of ID that Black voters were least likely to have, and then requiring those IDs to vote. Obtaining IDs is especially difficult for people living with disabilities, the elderly, and people in rural areas. Name match rules for IDs especially hurt Asian Americans who have transliterated names. In total, over 21 million eligible voters do not have IDs required by many states to vote.
5.Voter purging, which is the practice of removing eligible voters from registration records. Voters in Black neighborhoods were twice as likely to get purged than voters in white suburbs, and states with a demonstrated history of racial voting discrimination had a 40% higher purge rate.
6. Restricting access to polling locations. Georgia in 2018 closed or relocated hundreds of polling places, preventing an estimated 54,000 to 85,000 voters from casting their vote. Furthermore, ⅓ of voters living with a disability report difficulty voting, and only 40% of polling places fully accommodate people with disabilities. Polling places also provide in-language assistance for voters who are not fluent in English.
With the 2020 election happening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, voters will experience further complications and restrictions.
For example, Texas will not accept medical vulnerability to the coronavirus as sufficient grounds for absentee voting. Many have already experienced increased voter suppression — For the primaries, Wisconsin only had five polling places open instead of the usual 180.
Voter suppression also disproportionately impacts Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.
AAPIs are the racial group that receives the least political outreach — a survey conducted after the 2012 election showed that 69% of Asian American and 75% of Pacific Islander voters were never contacted about the election. As a result, only 55% of eligible AAPI voters are registered compared to the national average of 71%.
Language access is another significant issue: 35% of Asian Americans have limited English proficiency, the highest rate across all racial groups. While the Voting Rights Act requires language assistance during the voting process, many AAPIs do not receive adequate translation services because of the broad range of languages spoken among the racial bloc — in 2012, 76% of AAPI voters’ jurisdictions did not provide language assistance.
Furthermore, documents for AAPIs are often mixed up or rejected over slight differences in spelling, which is a common problem for people with transliterated names, and AAPIs are six times more likely than whites to have voter registration applications denied or delayed.
AAPIs also experience racial bias when voting — many are asked to provide extra ID forms on voting day because they supposedly look too foreign or do not speak proficient English.
So what can we do to fight voter suppression? Here are five actions you can take today and over the next few months to protect the right to vote:
- Vote, if you can. Voting is a privilege that many people do not have. It’s also important to vote down the ballot because local officials and ballot measures have the power to influence voting suppression.
- Stay informed about voter suppression, especially new tactics such as the spread of misinformation on social media. Report misinformation when you see it and spread accurate voting information.
- Volunteer with organizations like AAPI FORCE to conduct outreach to AAPIs and other groups disproportionately affected by voter suppression.
- Volunteer at polling centers on election day if you are at low-risk for COVID-19. The average poll worker is over 60 years old.
- Donate to organizations conducting voter outreach and advocacy work. You can search for organizations by state, constituency, and issue area on Movement Voter Project.It’s been 55 years since the Voting Rights Act, and we still don’t have equal voting rights