The barricade of horrifying Supreme Court decisions in June 2018 left me stunned. The media loudly condemned the Muslim-discriminatory, union-busting, and anti-choice decisions. However, one case went largely ignored. In a 5-4 decision the court supported Ohio’s act to unregister over a million voters. This purging is part of a larger, hidden trend. From 2014 to 2016 16 million voters have been removed from registries. Like many of these purges, the Ohio act disproportionately stripped racial minorities, people in poverty, and people with disabilities from registration records.
The Ohio decision led me to look deeper into the subtle and explicit ways in which votes have been suppressed throughout U.S. history. I found that voter suppression is deeply ingrained in our democracy. The principles of political participation in the United States were designed to benefit wealthy, white, men. And the racist, ableist Ohio registration purge is not an outlier, but rather the natural continuation of our history.
“Voter suppression is deeply ingrained in our democracy.”
The U.S. government was modeled after principals of ancient Greek democracy which fundamentally depended on the labor of slaves and the servitude of women for its prosperity. Slave labor provided the resources and time for wealthy male philosophers to ponder the meaning of life and debate political thought. Only property-owning white men were allowed to vote and participate politically in ancient Greece.
Just like in ancient Greece, the very first voting laws in the U.S. developed in 1789 limited voting to property-owning and tax-paying white males (equivalent to about 6 percent of the population). Poor people, people of color, Native Americans, and women, were explicitly excluded. Ever since, the path to suffrage has been paved with blood.
African Americans endured brutal violence to gain the right to vote in the United States. Even after the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, violent voter suppression tactics kept Black people disenfranchised. These tactics ranged from impossible literacy tests, to polling taxes, to direct violence and lynchings. Ben Tillman, a U.S. senator from 1895 to 1918 bluntly stated “We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate every last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.” Anti Black-suffrage advocates argued that the Black vote would undermine democracy because they were “too ignorant,” “too emotional,” and “too radical” to make political decisions.
The same rhetoric was used against women, who had to fight for over one hundred years to prove that they deserved to vote. Anti women’s suffrage advocates argued that if women had political power it would “unsex” men and deprive men of their masculine superiority. Men argued that women were too “too pious” and “too emotional” to participate in the nastiness of politics. In reality, granting women the right to vote was a direct attack on men’s patriarchal power that depended on women’s unpaid labor and disenfranchised status. Even after the passage of the 19th amendment, women often faced violence at the polls and were shunned for participating. Women of color who were often neglected by the women’s suffrage movement continued to be violently discriminated against at the polls long after the passage of the 19th amendment.
“For most people in this country the right to vote was not granted, but struggled for.’
For most people in this country the right to vote was not granted, but struggled for. While we admire the values of free democracy, our history unveils that political liberation was not built into the foundation of our nation.
As the Ohio decision reminds us, the legacy of voter suppression lives on today. The statistics are staggering. Today, felony voting restrictions keep 5.3 million people disenfranchised, including 1 of every 13 African Americans. Since the revoking of the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder, polling locations have steadily disappeared from low-income neighborhoods and American Indian reservations. Currently, only 1 in 4 polling places is completely accessible to people with disabilities. In some states transgender individuals cannot vote unless they have an approved ID that reflects their gender identity and appearance which can cost hundreds of dollars to update and can even require a surgical transition that may not be necessary or wanted. And the presence of voter ID laws across the country has been proven to directly impact racial disparities in voter turnout. These laws specifically target the most marginalized groups. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The purging of voter registries, the enactment of strict voter ID laws, and the changes that make voting inconvenient and inaccessible continue to keep many people away from using their political power. We need to connect these modern day voting restrictions with their historical roots in violence in order to re-create a democracy that is truly built for everyone.