America’s Sordid History of Voter Suppression

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While, technically, the election isn’t over until the electoral college meets on December 14, it seems certain enough that Joe Biden has won and that Trump’s various lawsuits won’t change the outcome (and, indeed, may only be for PR and to help him feel better about losing).

Some people, though, have things to say about this election. One individual, who shall remain nameless, wants to count all votes twice forever (never mind that this would mean the election couldn’t be decided until Christmas), but he also had opinions on qualifications to vote. This included voter IDs and a mandatory civics course.

He wasn’t willing to listen to anyone on what this meant or how it would be viewed by many people.

America, see, has a long history of voter suppression. And “mandatory civics course” brings up echoes of “literacy test.”

A Timeline of Who Can Vote

This country did not start with the modern universal franchise. In fact, the universal franchise is a relatively recent thing in most European parliamentary democracies too.

So, here’s a quick timeline of voter rights over time.

1828 — Maryland becomes the last state to drop a religious requirement on voting, allowing Jews to enter the ballot booth.

1848 — Citizenship is granted to Mexicans living in the U.S., but voters still need to be able to speak and read English.

1856 — North Carolina becomes the first state to drop property limits on voting, but the franchise is still limited to white men.

1868 — The Fourteenth Amendment grants citizenship to former slaves, but explicitly defines voters as male.

1870 — The Fifteenth Amendment expands the legal right to vote to African-American men, although it was de facto highly restricted.

1887 — Native Americans are allowed to vote…but only if they give up their tribal affiliations.

1890 — Wyoming becomes the first U.S. state to allow women to vote.

1890 — Native Americans are allowed to vote if they apply for citizenship.

1920 — The Nineteenth Amendment gives voting rights to women.

1924 — Citizenship granted to all Native Americans (although not all are allowed to vote)

1947 — The vote is finally granted to all Native Americans after a lawsuit in New Mexico.

1952 — Asian people are allowed to become citizens. As a note: Kamala Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, immigrated only a few years later in 1958. Just to remind everyone of how recent this is.

1961 — The 23rd amendment gives citizens of Washington, D.C. the presidential vote. They still have no representation in Congress.

1964 — The 24th amendment makes “poll taxes” and similar illegal.

1965 — The Voting Rights Act is passed, which forbids states from restricting the vote

1971 — The voting age is lowered to 18 (it was previously 21).

1993 — The national Voter Registration Act allows for voter registration to be available at more locations.

2000 — A federal court rules that Puerto Ricans can’t vote for President. (Think about that for a moment).

So, as you can see, the franchise being universal is…still not even entirely true until and unless D.C. and Puerto Rica become states. But at least it’s a lot closer than it was.

The real problems, though, aren’t in the legal things stated above. The real problems are the shenanigans people will go to to keep people from voting.

Especially Black people.

Literacy Tests

The point of literacy tests was to get an informed electorate. Supposedly. The test was simply supposed to ensure that a prospective voter could read and white English, and had some basic understanding of civics.

Sounds like a good idea, right?

In practice…the literacy tests included things like this:

  • An essay on the responsibilities of citizenship, judged entirely subjectively by registration officials.
  • Extremely obscure questions that could only be answered by intensive study. It was, of course, closed book.
  • Logic problems that were designed to be convoluted and nonsensical (Louisiana was notorious for this).

In many cases there were difficult and easy questions. When a Black person tried to take the test, the white registrar would give them the hard questions, or ask them more questions, or do whatever it took to ensure that they failed.

(As a note. I’ve taken the modern equivalent, the test given to naturalized citizens. It was easy for me, but I’m a bit of a politics nerd. I can understand how it would be hard for others).

(As another note, now do you understand why Civics Course Guy was proposing something that would…yeah…even if he tried to insist it wasn’t that).

Literacy tests were rendered illegal by the Voting Rights Act, as were many other means of voter suppression, which included:

  • Straight up threats of violence.
  • Poll taxes
  • “Character” tests that included disqualifiers such as fathering an illegitimate child. White men, of course, passed and Blacks never did.
  • Confusing voting methods such as separate boxes for each race.
  • Banning pre-printed ballots, which gave voters the chance to look at the names and such. I’m going to stop bitching about sample ballots now.
  • The original “grandfather clause,” which specifically exempted people from the literacy test if they or their ancestors had been able to vote before 1867. This was designed to protect white people.

So, it’s all good now, right?


The 2008 Presidential Election, Voting Machines, and Lines

Remember 2008?

How long did you have to wait in line to vote?

I live in a very nice neighborhood in northern Virginia. It’s expensive (but worth it for my husband’s short prepandemic and hopefully postpandemic commute).

In 2008, Virginia used electronic voting machines. It was also still, at that point, a swing state. (I can see the same history being repeated now in Georgia).

This was, of course, the first year Barack Obama ran for President. And he energized voters both for and against him.

In other words, turnout was high.

Turnout was higher than predicted.

Here’s one of the many problems with the voting machines:

You can’t just add another one when the lines build. My polling place had four voting machines assigned to it.

This was not enough.

I waited in line for hours, and then something happened.

A truck pulled up with paper ballots and a ballot scanner. Jury rigged booths were rapidly set up.

The line evaporated. I voted using a paper ballot and was fine.

Then I saw the pictures from other neighborhoods.

From those neighborhoods.

Ya know, where the brown people live.

I can’t prove anything, but it became fairly clear that there had been a certain prioritization in the delivery of those line-killing paper ballots.

(Virginia stopped using voting machines for security reasons in 2017).

It brought home to me at a very personal level that voter suppression is still real.

And here’s some of the forms it now takes:

  • Closing polling stations or locating them such that minorities have to travel a long distance to vote. That picture of the Navajo voting posse is amazing…but nobody should have to ride 10 miles to vote.
  • Felon disenfranchisement coupled with racially-biased policing. Black people are more likely to be convicted and more likely to be handed a felony over a misdemeanor when a case can go both ways. And crimes committed by poor people are more likely to be felonies. In 2016, 1 out of 13 Black adults was disenfranchised because of a conviction, and we’re not talking murder and stuff here.
  • Gerrymandering. Need I say more?
  • Voter ID laws, especially ones that exclude common forms of ID such as student IDs. Texas, however, will gladly accept your handgun license. In some cases voter ID laws have been combined with “consolidation” DMV offices so people in Black counties have to travel long distances to get a drivers’ license or state ID. Imagine having to drive 250 miles to get an ID? Some older people in rural areas who never learned to drive discovered when they tried to get an ID to vote that there was an error on their birth certificate which had to be corrected…at a typical cost of $2–300.
  • Employers refusing to give people time off to vote or intimidating employees to vote in a certain way.
  • And, of course, suppressing the postal vote (which, incidentally, hits the military hard). Trump has even filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania that attempts to declare mail-in voting unconstitutional. Yes, all mail-in voting. Screw the military, screw the disabled… Thankfully, his lawsuit appears to be baseless and will hopefully be dismissed, but it’s part of a pattern. (Incidentally, if he did succeed, the fix would be to go to universal mail-in voting like in Washington, which would…well…not be the desired result for the Republicans, methinks).

So, what can we do about this?

It’s going to take a lot of work to stop the kind of voter suppression that’s still going on. But it can be done. We just need to keep fighting. Florida passed a law re-enfranchising felons only to have Republicans tell them they had to pay all their debt first; essentially a poll tax, but the courts are refusing to acknowledge this.

So, we have to keep fighting. For the right and responsibility of voting for all citizens.

What is our Best Anti-Voter Suppression Tool

I’m going to end with my controversial thought on how we stop voter suppression:

Make voting mandatory.


You sputter, but you don’t understand. Mandatory voting is not about punishing people who don’t vote. In Australia, not voting nets you a tiny fine, and that’s only if you can’t provide a good reason (such as being too sick to get out of bed).

It’s about punishing people who try to stop others from voting. It’s about making it so employers have to give people time off.

It’s about making it hard for lawmakers to prevent voting.

Mandatory voting doesn’t mean you have to vote; in Australia people protest by turning in blank ballots. Or ones with interesting doodles on them. Or ones with comments about the candidate slate that are less than flattering.

It just means that voting is the default, not the exception.

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Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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