Prejudice at the polls

By Patricia Jackson

Special to the Daily Commercial

As we enter the first Black History Month of this new decade and its ensuing celebrations commemorating the legacy and contributions made by blacks in this country and the world, we reflect on the responsibility of blacks to play our legacy forward. An important part of our legacy is the right to vote knowing the price our ancestors paid to achieve this basic right of all citizens for generations to come.

In 1868 the 14th Amendment granted blacks the right to vote.

The 15th Amendment prohibited the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on their “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

Yet, in spite of this legislation, black voters were turned away from the voting site, issued voting tests, had poll taxes levied against them and when all else failed, their lives were threatened or taken.

In 1964 the 24th Amendment was ratified abolishing poll taxes in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting. Also, in the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed prohibiting unequal application of voter registration requirements. Just when blacks thought it was safe to go to the polls, the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County vs. Holder ruled to roll back the Voting Rights Act which resulted in the closing of nearly 1,000 polling places in predominantly African American counties. Research has shown that moving voting locations negatively impacts voter turnout.

The 2000 presidential election debacle of George W. Bush is representative of this bias. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that Florida’s Code of Conduct of the 2000 election unjustly penalized minority voters, according to the Washington Post. These irregularities included blocking highways in order to derail voters from access to polling locations, ballots that were never counted or purged especially in areas with a large minority population.

In preparation for the 2016 election, stricter measures were adopted to voter ID requirements, early voting opportunities and polling places. In addition, studies have found those states with a large population of people of color had fewer polling places accessible to them. The reduction in the number of polling places increases the number of people waiting in line thus increasing the wait time which discourages people from voting. Research has shown that black voters wait in line twice as long as white voters. However, since some people of color are wary of voting by mail, waiting on long lines may be their only option especially when early voting is not available.

Voter ID laws have become more stringent over recent years. What makes this requirement more confusing is that the types of id required varies by state. Not surprising, whites are more likely to have an acceptable form of ID than blacks. Voter names have been removed from voter registration lists in communities of color.

In an attempt to level the playing field in preparation for the 2020 election and beyond, the House passed a bill, in December 2019, to reinstate the federal oversight of state election law as it pertains to the protection against racial discrimination, a key component of the Voting Rights Act. The bill, when and if passed by the Senate, would set parameters used to determine which states and territories need to seek approval for electoral procedures, requiring public notice for voting changes which would expand access to Native Americans.

If our democracy is to live up to its promise and potential, it must have the full and equal participation of all of its citizens. When citizens are denied their basic rights, we remain shackled to America’s past sins.



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