What right to vote? A candid history of voter suppression in the United States

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Este artículo en español

Voter suppression in the U.S. was much in the news during this recent election. But the issue of who has the right to vote, and who does not, is a long-running class battle between the wealthy elite and the workers. Those in power have always maintained their influence through voter exclusion and a rigged electoral system guaranteeing the dominance of pro-capitalist political parties — at the expense of alternative parties like my own Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), whose vice-presidential candidate I was last year.

In the first U.S. presidential election in 1789, most of the states allowed only white male property owners over 21 to vote, and some included religious restrictions. This left most people disenfranchised; only about six percent of the population could vote in the election that made George Washington the country’s first executive. Centuries later, after successive campaigns to extend and protect voting rights, the fight still continues.

Step by step, the majority wins the vote. The right to vote is not included in the Constitution, and how it’s legislated is mostly a state-by-state affair. The battle to expand voting rights began with organizing by war veterans who had fought for independence from Britain. Their efforts led to white working-class men getting the vote. Men of color and women won the vote in later, often heroic struggles — with most women and Native Americans gaining suffrage only in the 1920s.

But in the wake of these formal victories for the right to vote, the powerful found new strategies to suppress it in practice.

When the 15th Amendment granted the vote to Black men after the Civil War, Black and poor white workers overcame race divisions and made political alliances. But when their unity threatened the Southern ruling class, those rulers enacted Jim Crow segregation laws as a divide-and-conquer tactic and a means to keep Blacks down. Policies such as literacy tests and poll taxes were used to prevent Blacks and poor working-class whites from exercising their right to vote.

And, because literacy tests were in English, many immigrants and Latinos were also blocked from voting.

Meanwhile, Northern states also had their racist voting laws, including a long residency requirement for naturalized citizens. Nationally, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, and thus from voting; it was not repealed until 1943.

The civil rights movement finally made Black suffrage a reality by winning passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During the Vietnam War, student activists pushed for a younger voting age, pointing out with outrage that 18-year-olds could be drafted but not vote. The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971.

Exclusion maneuvers. In 2012, with people of color on their way to becoming the U.S. majority, Black and Latino votes were blatantly undermined.

Tactics included doling out voter misinformation and purging names from the rolls. The billionaire-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) influenced several states to pass restrictive voter ID laws that put up obstacles for many low-income voters, people with disabilities, and voters of color.

Florida deterred voters by passing an ID law and cutting back on early voting. This especially affected poor and working-class women, many of them of color, who were robbed of their chance to vote on an initiative to withhold state funds from abortion services. (It failed anyway.)

The restrictive new laws mean that names can now be purged if the address on a driver’s license doesn’t match voter registration records. Criminal records and other public information are also used to eliminate registrants whose names match that of a felon or someone deceased. Some states tried to remove registered voters on the suspicion of lack of citizenship. In California, according to reporter Gary Palast, newly registered voters were purged if they had “suspicious” surnames.

If voters removed from the rolls show up at the polls, they get a provisional ballot. What happened in Arizona this last election really hit home for me as a Chicana activist from that state. Over 600,000 voters, including many Latinos, were left out of initial official election results because they were given provisional ballots. Xenophobic Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio won his race — but he was declared the winner even when over 400,000 provisional ballots remained to be counted.

The disenfranchisement of felons is another form of voter suppression, one that especially impacts African Americans because of their disproportionate convictions as felons in the racist criminal justice system.

Elections as a tool for change. In response to the efforts to hold down the “undesirable” vote in 2012, Black, Latino, and Asian American activists stepped up efforts to get people to the polls, with some success. But the biggest form of voter suppression is that workers and the poor have nobody to vote for who represents their interests.

When Stephen Durham and I ran on FSP’s presidential ticket, we saw firsthand how parties lacking billionaire funding are kept in check. The Democrats make a stink about Republican voter suppression, but both parties quash the socialist vote.

To get on the ballot in all 50 states, a minor party would have to gather a total of about 700,000 signatures — as just one obstacle! This is the reason FSP decided to run a write-in campaign, so that we could use our precious resources for grass-roots campaigning. Even so, we had to jump tremendous hurdles — including harassment of Durham-López voters right at the polls by election officials in at least two states, New Jersey and Illinois. And, with scandals over the rejection of mail-in ballots popping up in states like Florida, who knows how many Durham-López mail-ins were rejected!

Electoral reform is desperately needed — things like publicly financed campaigns, enfranchisement of noncitizen residents and felons, equal ballot access for minor parties, and the elimination of voter ID laws.

The truth is, though, that we won’t get all these things under capitalism. (Though we could win some improvements with a militant mass movement.) But the battle is worth it! Elections and the fight for voting rights are tools we can use to build the impetus for making a revolutionary change — one that will finally translate into real democracy for the multiracial working class.

Contact the author at cglopez@mindspring.com

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