In U.S. practice, a poll tax was used as a de facto or implicit pre-condition of the exercise of the ability to vote. This tax emerged in some states of the United States in the late 19th century as part of the Jim Crow laws. After the ability to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern states enacted poll tax laws which often included a grandfather clause that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax. These laws, along with unfairly implemented literacy tests and extra-legal intimidation, achieved the desired effect of disenfranchising African-American and Native American voters as well as poor whites who immigrated after the year specified.
Let us never forget that this country's beginnings did not offer voting rights to all. Only white male property owners were permitted to vote, with only four states allowing the vote to free black males.
I don’t take my right to vote for granted. The ballot is still one of the most precious and hard won gifts of this democracy, and I know all too well the thin line that separates me from being allowed to vote, and losing it.
I will not forget my ancestors who died fighting for me to be able to go to a polling station and cast a vote for my candidate of choice.
I will not forget the obstacles strewn in their paths—be they poll taxes, or vigilante terror.
I will not forget the determined resistance against repression—and the ultimate victories we won.
I will not let my students forget that it was not so very long ago that most of them would not have been able to vote, since two-thirds of my students are female. I have Black, Latino, Asian and Native American students, all of whom would have been forbidden the ballot during different periods in our history. Though usually cast as solely a black-white issue, the subject of the franchise historically unveils the intersections of "race," gender, ethnicity and social class.
I will make sure that they know their votes are threatened right now.
Across the nation, in state houses and courthouses, we are engaged in a battle for the ballot. We face current threats, not just from Republican state legislators hell-bent on turning back the clock and locking us out of voting booths.
The arch-conservative "educational foundation" Judicial Watch, funded primarily by the Sarah Scaife Foundation and The Carthage Foundation, both managed by Richard Mellon Scaife, and the John M. Olin Foundation, Inc are already making moves.
Their action plan is to dredge up ACORN, again, as part of their delusional conspiracy theories [warning: link takes you to right wing Justice Watch site] about massive voter fraud and collusion between ACORN, Project Vote, the Department of Justice, and the president.
We have our own troops, and we can win this war—if we get actively involved.
On Dec. 10, 2011, the NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense Fund kicked off a year-long effort of voter education and legal moves to take a stand for our rights to vote.
On December 5, 2011, the NAACP released a new report revealing direct connections between the trend of increasing, unprecedented African American and Latino voter turnout and an onslaught of restrictive measures across the country designed to stem electoral strength among communities of color.
The report,Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America, details a plethora of voter suppression initiatives, most of them pushed in states with large African-American populations and where voting turnout has surged. The joint report by the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund examines scores of legislative proposals, ballot initiatives and voting laws enacted or proposed since the 2008 election.
Copies of the report will be sent to the federal and state agencies that monitor, administer and enforce voting rights, including the US Department of Justice, the Federal Elections Commission, and the Election Assistance Commission, as well as Secretaries of State and Attorneys General in all 50 states. In addition, the report will be delivered to the appropriate committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate, and entities within the United Nations.
Sign the pledge so you can get involved.
Let's take a brief look at voting rights history. As I mentioned before, much of the discussion of the franchise tends to be around African Americans, and their struggle to cast off the yoke of enslavement, and achieve the right to vote. To then maintain it through the nightmare period of reconstruction fraught with lynchings and burnings, into the civil rights era and beyond. We often overlook the history of other groups who were equally disenfranchised.
The most ironic one is that of those people we dub "Native Americans." As the first people here, one would think they would have enjoyed the rights of U.S. citizens.
They did not.
In 1924, by Act of Congress, Native Americans were granted citizenship.
Before this juncture, members of federally recognized tribes had to be officially “naturalized” or declared “competent” by the Government in order to be given the rights of a United States citizen. Presently all Native Americans born within the territorial limits of the United States are by law citizens and have the privilege of voting in national elections. However, some states continued to prohibit Native Americans from voting in local elections well past 1924. New Mexico, for example, did not extend the vote to Native Americans until 1962, and Arizona not until 1964.
Asian Americans and Latinos faced similar restrictions. The added complication was that many members of these communities were effectively denied access to the vote simply because they did not read English well, if at all. This was not corrected legally until Congress enacted Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1975.
Current barriers to voting are rooted in this history, especially felon disenfranchisement, which was instituted during reconstruction, and has worsened since then. Currently, over 5 million Americans of voting age have lost their right to vote. Had this not been true, we would have had a President Gore instead of Bush.
I have read many arguments, proffered by those who worry about giving the right to vote to people with a prior felony conviction. I suggest that they read Conned by Sasha Abramsky.
More than four million Americans, mainly poor, black, and Latino, have lost the right to vote. In some states, as many as a third of all African American men cannot take part in the most basic right of a democracy. The reason? Felony disenfranchisement laws, which remove the vote from people while they are in prison or on parole, and, in several states, for the rest of their lives.
Award-winning journalist Sasha Abramsky takes us on a journey through disenfranchised America, detailing the revival of antidemocratic laws that came of age in the post–Civil War segregationist South, and profiling Americans who are fighting to regain the right to vote. From the Pacific Northwest to Miami, with stops in a dozen states in between, Abramsky shows for the first time how this growing problem has played a decisive role in elections nationwide—from state races all the way up to the closely contested 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
With a new national Right to Vote campaign having just helped to overturn Iowa’s felony disenfranchisement laws and similar campaigns under way in eight other states, this book comes at a time when many Americans have begun to recognize these laws as a fundamental threat to democracy.
Sometimes those who argue the loudest against enfranchisement of people who have come back into society don't realize that they are only a toke away from losing theirs.
I usually say, "Let me be blunt. Have you ever smoked pot? Ever purchased pot? Know anyone who has done either?"
Few of us think of marijuana as something that is felonious that can take away voting rights. I point the deniers to NORML, which has a marijuana felony map.
I'm not trying to make the argument that marijuana should somehow be viewed differently from other reasons for incarceration with respect to giving the right to vote to those who have done their time and re-entered society. Our entire criminal injustice system needs an overhaul. What needs to be addressed immediately is the right of all citizens to vote.
Rep. John Conyers spoke for me when he said:
The United States may have the most restrictive disenfranchisement policy in the world. Such prohibitions on the right to vote undermine both the voting system and the fundamental rights of ex-offenders."
It is appropriate that at a time that we traditionally pay homage to those who led civil rights struggles for voting rights and justice, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we recognize the efforts being made in the current administration that are tied to the struggles of the past and that we continue to pressure for more justice in the future.
Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Justice Department has moved to block South Carolina's voter ID law, recently used the platform of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Columbia, South Carolina on Monday, Jan. 16, to address voting rights. Full transcript here.
In particular, today’s Justice Department – and, specifically, our Civil Rights Division and its Voting Section – have taken meaningful steps to ensure integrity, independence, and transparency in our enforcement of the Voting Rights Act – legislation that Dr. King was instrumental in advancing and, in 1965, saw signed into law by President Johnson.
Nearly half a century ago, Dr. King correctly observed that, although the walls of segregation were crumbling, without equal access to the ballot box, America’s minority citizens would have “dignity without strength.” With this knowledge, he – and so many other courageous men and women – took extraordinary risks – and also made tremendous sacrifices – to ensure that their children, and future generations of American citizens, would have the chance to participate in the work of their government. They realized a truth that we must never take for granted – that the right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of governance, it is the lifeblood of our democracy. And no force has proved more powerful – or more integral to the success of the great American experiment – than efforts to expand the franchise. Let me be very clear: the arc of American history has bent toward the inclusion – not the exclusion – of more of our fellow citizens in the electoral process. We must ensure that this continues.
Meanwhile, in the Republican primary scramble, the soon-to-be nominee Mitt Romney has stated clearly his position on voting rights. The Washington Post editorial board took an opposing view:
During Monday’s GOP presidential debate, Mr. Romney at times smugly touted his belief that the voting rights of defendants convicted of violent crimes should not be restored — even if they have served the requisite time behind bars and stayed on the right side of the law after release. “I’m not letting felons who had committed violent crimes to vote,” Mr. Romney said. “I think it’s a position that’s reasonable, and that’s the position I’ve got.” [...]
Stripping a convicted felon of the right to vote is a serious consequence for the commission of a serious crime. But prolonging this punishment even after an inmate has paid his debt to society and earned the right to freedom is as unjust as it unwise, preventing individuals from having a full stake and a full voice in the community and its leadership. An individual’s ability to vote should not be a matter of grace subject to political whims.
If we don't want to see more elections stolen out from under us, we have to work harder to ensure that all citizens have equal access to the voting booths, and that all those ballots count.
Get involved both locally and nationally. There are plenty of things you can do.
Sign this petition to Attorney General Eric Holder: Tell DOJ to Block Discriminatory Voter ID Laws.
Support the Sentencing Project.
Support the Rock the Vote Don't Block the Vote campaign.
Check out The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law for more information.
Post information through your social networks.
In collaboration with Brave New Foundation, the NAACP has put together a new video about the impact of the voting right attacks on communities of color. Please take a moment to watch and spread the message to everyone you know, then text STAND to 62227 to join our fight for voting rights.
Though I'm sure many of you may have seen these videos, it is imperative that you pass them on to your friends, family members and co-workers.
Please add your suggestions for information and action.
Join the battle for the ballot.
We can do this.