by Gary Clingman

Black History Month is a good time to consider the Right to Vote. People of color, along with women and immigrants, have endured so much hardship to obtain and exercise the right to vote. 

The Personal Significance of Voting

Before we take a brief tour through the US history of voting rights, let’s think about the significance of the ability to vote and what it would be like to have that right denied or restricted. As a white male born in the middle of the last century, it is easy for me to take the right to vote and the ease with which I vote as universal to all Americans. As we will see that is not true.

I have heard people say that the vote gives a person a voice. Others have said it gives a person power. I agree with both of these views. In my opinion the most significant thing the vote gives a person is worth. When a person is allowed to vote that individual’s opinion is viewed as worthy of consideration. That person counts in society. 

What does it say to a person who is denied the right to vote because of their race, gender, status or country of origin? Can you put yourself in the shoes of that person for a moment? How do you feel when society tells you that you will not have a voice in this or any election because you are a black woman? What’s on your mind when your neighborhood polling place is closed 30 days before the election and the new one is 20 miles from your home? Do you feel less significant than others? Do you feel powerless? I think I would.

Our History

When Did You Get The Right to Vote?

Let’s change our identity through US history to learn when we could vote.

I am a White Man who Owns Real Estate; I can Vote in 1787

At the time of our country’s founding, states were tasked with deciding who could vote. In almost all cases only white males who owned real estate were trusted with the vote. 

I am a Black Man: I can vote in 1870

Only after the Civil War, in 1870, did black males gain the right to vote. That right was suppressed in southern states for almost a century through various Jim Crow laws. 

I am a Woman; I can vote in 1920

Women fought long and hard to gain the right to vote. Finally in 1920 women for the first time had the right to vote. Again, states passed laws to suppress their ability to vote.

I am a Native American or a Non-Chinese Asian American; I can vote in 1924

It is hard to understand why the people who lived on this land long before any European settlers had to wait 137 years to have a voice. Even after the right was granted, some states continued to ban native Americans from the polls. Chinese Americans had to wait until 1943 to gain the right to vote.

I am a Resident of Washington DC; I can vote for president in 1961

Not until 1961 were the residents of our nation’s capitol district allowed to vote for President.

I am 18 or 19 or 20; I can vote in 1971

Finally in 1971 the country allowed young people ages 18-20 to vote. We had allowed and even drafted them to die in our wars but not vote prior to this date.

Your Right to Vote Was Suppressed

I am a Black Person (Jim Crow Laws)

Starting in the late 1800’s southern states used what became known as Jim Crow Laws to make it almost impossible for black citizens to vote. The laws included the implementation of Poll Taxes making it difficult for the poor to afford their right to vote. To better target black people, some states added Grandfather Clauses to allow poor whites to avoid paying the poll tax. Another form of the Jim Crow Laws was the Literacy Test. Literacy Tests were administered in a manner to primarily disqualify black people.

Not until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 were these suppression tactics outlawed. In 2013 the US Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act by eliminating targeted federal oversight of locales with a history of voter suppression.

I am an Immigrant (English Language Requirements)

Some states in the past blocked immigrants’ from voting by requiring proficiency in the english language.

The 2013 Supreme Court Ruling and New Barriers to Your Vote

Since the 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, states have passed many new laws to make it harder to vote. Just in 2021 19 states enacted 34 new laws designed to suppress the vote. Some of the barriers that have been constructed since 2013 are;

         Purging Voter Roles

         Harsher Voter ID Requirements

         Polling Location Changes, Closures or Consolidations

         Restricted Access to Absentee/Mail Voting

         Reductions in Early Voting Days

         Reduced Voting Hours

         Failure to Allow Online or Same Day Voter Registration

         Onerous Provisional Ballot Requirements

         Partisan Election Administration and Reviews

         Banning Volunteers Providing Water To Voters in Long Lines

         Dilution of Minority Votes through Racial Gerrymandering

 Why Care?

I care because I believe Jesus cares. Jesus taught that we are to love our neighbor. I want to understand my neighbors’ difficulties and help where I can as part of loving them. I believe all are created in the image of God. Others deserve me caring about their needs and wants as much as I care about my own needs and wants.

I care because I feel lucky to live in the United States of America and enjoy freedoms that only our type of government can deliver. While our history displays a failure to live up to the ideal that all people are equal, during much of our nation’s existence there has been progress toward that ideal.

I also believe that we are at a critical time in our country. There seems to be many in our country that question if a democracy that allows all people equal access to vote is in their best interest. They seem to believe that some groups are more equal than others. They want to obtain and retain power for their group at any cost, even the great American experiment. 

The corner stone of democracy is not only the right to vote in fair and free elections, it is also the ease by which this right to vote is available to every citizen . Equal access to vote, along with trust that every vote will count, are essential for a true democracy to endure. 

What Can I Do?

I believe that we are called to deeply understand and care about our neighbors, even if they don’t think like we do. We need to all commit to civil discourse. To listen first. To seek out the truth and share it in love. 

Some other opportunities to help are;

            Volunteer with the 2BC Voter Registration Team

            Encourage those you know to register and vote

            Engage with elected officials on voting rights issues

            Give the elderly and disabled a ride to the pools

            and by all means Vote

Black History Month is a good time to reflect on the sacrifice that so many have made to gain the right to vote. It is also a good time to commit to the journey toward a more perfect union with an EQUAL RIGHT TO VOTE for all.

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