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Voting Rights

Last Updated:2016-Apr-22
Principal Writer:Rob Dennis and Barry Shatzman

Issue Sections

Understanding The Issue

Reported News

Elections: Voting Rights

Related Bills

Voting Rights Act

1965 (S-1564)

Related Court Cases

(2017) Cooper v. Harris
(2015) Az Legislature v. Az Independent Redistricting Commission
(2013) Shelby County v. Holder

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How should we decide who votes?

Voting is the core of a democracy., and elections should be above reproach. Most would agree on several features of elections needed to achieve that objective.

o Everyone who is legally allowed to vote should be able to vote.

o They should be able to vote at a location that is safe and close to their home, at no cost to them, without undo hardships, and without revealing their vote.

o Anyone not legally eligible to vote should not be allowed to cast a vote.

o You should be assured that your vote was recorded exactly as you intended.

The country has a mixed history of achieving these objectives.

Who has been allowed to vote over time?

The right to vote used to be restricted to certain segments of the population. It is only within the past 100 years that women have been allowed to vote.

Landmark expansions on voting rights include...

1787White male property owners at least 21 years old
1843White men at least 21 years old
1870Men at least 21 years old (15th Amendment)
1920Men and women at least 21 years old (19th Amendment)
1971Men and women at least 18 years old (26th Amendment)

Blacks in the South could not vote

African Americans were given the constitutional right to vote in 1870. Over next 30 years, 22 served in Congress. All were from southern states.

That changed around 1900 in the South. States such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina concocted methods to keep blacks from voting. These methods were part of what was referred to as Jim Crow laws.

o Literacy tests. Though many people were illiterate, many whites were judged to have understood what was read to them, even if they didn't. Many blacks were judged to have not understood, even if they had.

o Property ownership was made a requirement to vote.

o Poll taxes of up to $50 in today's money.

o People's names were removed from the official list of voters, so when they showed up to vote they would find they weren't registered.

o Former prisoners often were not allowed to vote. Blacks often were arrested on false charges or for minor offenses.

o Violence - including killing and burning homes of blacks (or their families) who tried to vote.

Many of these restrictions affected poor whites also. There was a remedy for some of these, however. If a person failed a literacy test or did not own property, they still would be allowed to vote if their grandfather had been allowed to vote. Though this grandfather clause applied to blacks as well as whites, virtually no black person in the South had a grandfather who had been able to vote during the slave era.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed much

Two major changes to voting laws led to what many consider the end of the Jim Crow era and the disenfranchisement of black voters.

In 1964, the Constitution's 24th Amendment eliminated poll taxes.

The following year, Pres. Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act .

Under the Voting Rights Act, polling places no longer could require a test of knowledge or character before allowing a person to vote. Nor could they intimidate citizens into not voting.

Also, jurisdictions that had used such practices in the past that wanted to make changes to their election practices would need to pre-clear the changes with federal government.

The law became one of the most successful in U.S. history. Within its first year, more than a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered. This chart shows the long-term effects on voter registration rates in affected states...

Data compiled from Congressional reports and cited in the 2013 Shelby County v Holder Supreme Court decision

Discrimination surfaces in other forms

Old discrimination tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests have essentially been vanquished. . But attempts to disenfranchise minority voters have not ended. The methods simply take on new forms...

o In 2012, a Texas school district attempted to shorten - without notice - the terms of three incumbent minority candidates, while changing the qualification timeframe so they would not be able to run for re-election. The federal government refused to pre-clear the changes - hence they did not take effect.

o In 2003, a Texas county announced it would eliminate all five polling places that served a predominantly-Latino part of San Antonio. The federal government refused to pre-clear the changes - hence they did not take effect.

o In 2001, the white mayor and all-white Board of Aldermen in a Mississippi town tried to cancel an election after black citizens became a majority of registered voters. The town refused to have the election until the Department of Justice required it in 2003.

In the past 15 years, the Department of Justice has turned down 86 requests for election changes. But that understates the problem. Between 1999 and 2005, more than 250 changes were withdrawn or replaced by altered submissions after the Department of Justice requested more information.

Voter ID - For some they can be nearly impossible to get

A recent barrier to voting has been state laws requiring voters to show a government-issued identification card when they vote. Voter ID laws make it nearly impossible for approximately 10 percent of eligible voters to vote, according to a 2012 study by the Brennan Center for Justice.

There's no such thing as a free ID

Though the IDs themselves are supposed to be provided at no cost, the supporting identification required to obtain the ID - such as a birth certificate - do cost money. Married women whose names differ from that on their birth certificate also are required to provide a marriage certificate. In Wisconsin, the most expensive state to obtain both documents, the total cost ranges from $5 to $40.

Many people live far from state offices

A more imposing barrier is getting to a state office that issues the required ID. More than a million voters who don't have valid voter identification live more than 10 miles from the nearest office. About 500,000 of those do not have access to a car.

"By definition, eligible voters who need photo ID will not have a driver's license, so they cannot drive themselves to a government office," the report points out. States with the most restrictive voter ID laws also are among those that spend the least in public transportation.

It isn't just where. It's when

Someone who successfully overcomes those barriers still faces an overwhelming challenge - the state offices are open for limited and erratic hours. Many are not open on every weekday, or are open for fewer than eight hours a day.

o One office in Wisconsin is open only on the fifth Wednesday of any month - meaning it will be open just four days this year. Some other Wisconsin offices are open just once every two months.

o In Alabama, one office is open only on the third Thursday of the month. In Mississippi, an office is open only on the second Thursday.

o In downtown Wichita, Kansas, there is only one office to serve more than 160,000 voters.

Just finding out when an office is open can be a problem. In Georgia, most county offices do not make their business hours easily accessible online, and some have incorrect addresses and phone numbers listed.

"Even when contacted directly, county offices in Georgia frequently gave incorrect information about free IDs," the report states.

More is coming

We currently are working on explaining this issue. Please check back.

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