A look into the changes of voting rights of underrepresented communities throughout history
Through all of the encouragement to vote in the upcoming November election, there remains a past, and even a present, where marginalized people were prohibited from participating in elections– a complete restriction of rights recognized by both law and culture.
Since the beginning of the United States, only a select group of people were able to decide on issues concerning the country and their regions. By the late 1700s, according to the Carnegie Foundation, white male landowners were the first to be given voting rights.
A look back at who was able to vote and when in U.S. history is a necessary reflection in order to understand today’s issues concerning voter disenfranchisement and suppression seen nationwide.
The first week of October is also National Voter Education Week (NVEW) – a nonpartisan campaign aimed at filling the time between voter registration and the national day of voting (November 7th). Each day of this work week, the campaign has designated a task for people to take part in. On Monday, voters should check their registration or get registered, and meanwhile on Thursday, for example, people can take the opportunity to learn their ballot.
While the attempts to get voters registered and educated on the issues may seem repetitive, imagine the representation of voters in the late 1700s and into the 1800s. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), which is changing its name to Teach Democracy this year, 75% of adult males in the British colonies were qualified voters. Anyone under the age of 21, women, enslaved people, people too poor to own land, Jewish people and Catholics were considered ineligible to vote during this time, also according to the CRF, and therefore, 10 to 20% of the total population was represented in the electorate.
The original U.S. Constitution did not even mention “the right to vote,” and voter eligibility was left up to the states as a result. The Democracy Docket, a voting rights and media platform, explained how some states, such as New Jersey, permitted Black men and women, who were not enslaved, the right to vote as long as they met certain property and tax requirements. New Jersey ultimately reversed allowing Black men and women to vote in 1807. Wyoming gave women the right to vote in 1869 and the 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1920.
After the Civil War, during the period known as the Reconstruction period, the federal government passed the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which gave citizenship to all people born in the U.S. and established equal protection under the law, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), giving African American men the right to vote.
Although more of the population was being granted suffrage, barriers to voting were being made by states. In the 1960s, mainly in Southern states, literacy and civic tests and poll taxes were implemented to suppress votes “among people of color, immigrants and low-income populations,” according to the Carnegie Foundation. Grandfather clauses were created by states to give affluent white people the excuse not to take any tests or pay poll taxes. The 24th Amendment made poll taxes illegal in 1962.
In further combating these barriers to voting, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Carnegie Foundation credited the voting rights marches that occurred during the same year in Alabama as the inspiration for the act. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the act outlawed the “discriminatory voting practices,” according to the National Archives, put forth by Southern states. The law also allowed for more federal government intervention in election processes. The National Archives also recorded that, by the end of 1965, 250,000 Black Americans became registered to vote.
Underrepresented groups have faced similar, but also, importantly, different obstacles in voting access. The Voting Rights Act broke down a lot of these barriers – which was mainly aimed at giving voting rights to African Americans – but why people were denied voting in the first place and how they received suffrage is more than just one story.
Latino communities make up 58 million of the population in the U.S., according to Remezcla, and are also the largest minority ethnic group in the nation. Language barriers, despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, still prevented Latino voters from going to the polls. The Voting Rights Act includes a section ensuring voters whose first language is not English could not be prohibited from voting, but Spanish speakers were still discriminated against when exercising the right, Remezcla reported.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford amended the Voting Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against non-English speakers. According to Remezcla, Ford’s amendment to the act paved the way for translating election and registration resources. In 1982, however, the provisions made to the Voting Rights Act were close to expiring, including the bilingual election requirement – if materials are written and printed in English, they must also be translated. Other amendments and provisions of the act were extended to 25 years and the bilingual election requirement was also extended to seven more years, according to Remezcla.
The Voting Rights Language Assistance Act of 1992 was then introduced by José E. Serrano, a representative from New York, who sought to extend the bilingual election requirement to 15 years. The act was passed, according to Remezcla, that same year and was signed by President George H.W. Bush.
People with mental and physical disabilities were also not protected until other provisions and acts were passed following the Voting Rights Act. According to The Arc Minnesota, an informative and assistance-based organization supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Voting Rights Act allowed for individuals with disabilities to have anyone they chose assist them in the voting process. The first federal protection came in the form of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and over a decade later, in 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act made it a requirement for “registration facilities and polling places for federal elections” to be “accessible to people with disabilities.”
The Arc Minnesota, in quoting the Federal Election Commission, reported that more than 20,000 polling places in the U.S. are inaccessible. The organization also noted how most states do not support braille ballots. Activists are still working toward making the voting process a more accessible system and, as a right, accommodations should be in place to allow people with disabilities the same, and simple, process of casting a ballot.
Another marginalized group that is often overlooked in discussions surrounding voter disenfranchisement in the U.S. is Native Americans. In an article by the Library of Congress, it is made clear that Native Americans practiced “self-government” way before the U.S. government was formed. But the U.S. government did not, and refused to, recognize Native Americans as citizens of the country and therefore their voting rights.
In 1924, the Snyder Act “gave” U.S. citizenship to Native Americans born in the U.S. and the act is what officially granted Native Americans the right to vote – despite the Fifteenth Amendment giving all citizens the right to vote regardless of race, according to the Library of Congress. Following the Snyder Act, it wouldn’t be until 40 years later that all states in the U.S. allowed Native Americans to vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests were still forced on Native Americans to be taken with the goal of not permitting them to vote.
The progress toward voting being an accessible right to practice is still a matter of continuation. In June of 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that states did not have to “submit changes in their election laws to the U.S. Justice Department for review,” according to the Carnegie Foundation. This ruling directly impacts voters in areas where state governments target in order to implement tactics of voter suppression. Since the ruling, states have continued to institute barriers to voting.
In reflecting on the voting histories of underrepresented groups, it is also necessary to observe what is happening to prevent these communities in the U.S. from voting today. There are ways to encourage people to register and resources to help people go about the process. If people help one another to exercise their right to vote, it can help ensure these barriers created by states will fall.
Resources and ways to act: