The Common Good

Watch the Vote: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?

The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was the third in a triad of amendments crafted to protect the rights of recently emancipated African Americans. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to people who were once enslaved, regardless of race. The 15th Amendment, which was passed by Congress February 26, 1869 and ratified February 3, 1870, reads: 

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Hazel Dukes (L), NAACP New York State Conference, announce 'Stand for Freedom' voting rights campaign. Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude —

Section 2.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

It took nearly a century of blood, terror, and tears, but in 1965 President Lyndon B Johnson and the 89th U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965; legislation to enforce the 15th Amendment. Finally.

One year more than a decade later, in 1976, I walked hand-in-hand with my mother trudging up and down city blocks lined with row houses in our West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia. Each time we knocked and a neighbor came to the door, my mom, who served as the judge of elections for our neighborhood, asked: “Are you registered to vote?” If they weren’t, out came the clipboard.

I didn’t understand the legacy we were a part of that day, but with each sweep of the clipboard we were brandishing a non-violent weapon in the long fight of our ancestors to be and stay free. For 100 years — that’s five generations — they faced down the terror of burning crosses, threats to life and livelihood, and the elaborate labyrinth of Jim Crow voting laws — all set up to suppress their votes, all set up to crush their ability to exercise dominion

So, when the Supreme Court announced recently that one of the cases it would take up in this session was a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the hairs rose on the back of my neck.

Section 5 mandates certain states and counties, mostly in the South, that have a history of racialized voter discrimination must receive advance approval from the federal government before changing their election laws. 

Several jurisdictions are challenging Section 5, most notably Shelby County, Ala., which filed a challenge arguing that the protections of the Voting Rights Act were needed by-and-by, but “things have changed in the South.”

Really?

I found this portal about voting during the Jim Crow era on the PBS website. Here’s what I learned:

In the decades after Reconstruction (circa 1870s-1880s) Jim Crow laws were established to block blacks from voting. Here’s the kind of shenanigans my ancestors had to deal with:

  • The Grandfather Clause: If your ancestors could vote before 1867, then you didn’t have to run the gauntlet of Jim Crow tests to qualify to vote. The catch? Only whites could vote in the south before 1867. So, if you were white? No problem. If you weren’t, then you proceed to the literacy test.
  • The Literacy Test: The literacy test was more like an advanced civics test — one that most Americans walking down the street today would not be able to pass. The 68 question 1965 Alabama state Literacy Tests featured on the PBS website asks questions about the purpose of the Constitution, the minimum required age of a U.S. president, and which two bodies must be present during the electoral vote for president. Really. Then, the site explains, even if you got all 68 answers correct, your test administrator could simply say you failed and you would be barred from voting. If you passed the literacy test, which only precious few actually did, then you had to jump the next hurdle — the poll tax.
  • The Poll Tax: The average poll tax in 1965 was about $10.64, according to the North Carolina based group ActionNC. Ten bucks seems cheap by today’s standards. But remember, in 1965 $10.64 could get a family a long way. A loaf of bread cost 21 cents. A gallon of gas for your car was 31 cents. The average house cost only $3,660! So, imagine, 42 percent of all black people were living below the poverty line in 1965. How valuable would that $10.64 be then? 
  • Transportation: Okay. So, you’ve passed the grandfather test, the literacy test, and you’ve anteed up and paid your poll tax. Now you just have to show up and vote. But it’s likely you don’t own a car and the polling place is some distance. Rumors have spread that black folks will be arrested and held in jail if they’re caught on the roads on voting day. Also scenes like this one are all too common.

Would you take your chances and try to vote anyway?

Here’s the kind of shenanigans folks are dealing with today. According to a recent Brennan Center for Justice study, since 2011:

  • Instead of the Grandfather Clause, 17 states have introduced Proof of Citizenship requirements. 
  • Instead of the literacy test, 23 states have introduced bills to limit voter registration by limiting early voting, purging voter rolls, and limiting absentee voting. 
  • Rather than a poll tax in the classic sense, 34 states introduced new photo ID laws. I paid $40 to transfer my driver’s license from New York State to Washington, D.C. One blistering thought filled my mind as I whipped out my bank card: “What if I was poor and lived in a state that required a state-issued photo ID?” I wouldn’t be able to vote this year.
  • Transportation: Intimidation has gotten more sophisticated. Now rather than hanging a person, authorities hang massive billboards warning drivers of the massive penalty of voter fraud. 

And so, the Supreme Court will consider the current necessity of the Voting Rights Act and it’s Section 5 mandate. You be the judge. Is the Voting Rights Act still needed? 

Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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