When our nation was founded, only a minority of the new country’s people enjoyed the right to vote. Guided by the belief that more Americans participating in our democracy would make our union stronger and more just, our foremothers and fathers fought to expand voting rights to the poor, to women, and to people of color. Those who came before us gave their lives fighting for an America where race, gender, and economic status would not keep future generations from the ballot box. Despite setbacks along the way, we made significant progress advancing voting rights. But our struggle is not over. Today, voting rights face renewed attacks that threaten to reverse our hard-won progress and ultimately hijack our democracy.
Communities of color have been struggling for voting rights for generations. After the 15th Amendment granted African-Americans the constitutional right to vote in 1870, states were faced with an expanded electorate that included large numbers of new black voters. Some responded by passing laws imposing poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements as prerequisites to voting. When those laws fell short of their democracy-inhibiting goal, violence and other forms of intimidation kept African-Americans essentially away from the ballot box for almost 100 years. Yesteryear’s poll tax and literacy test have mutated into unneeded restrictive voter ID laws and election roll purges that target low-income and minority communities with alarming accuracy. While striking North Carolina’s voter ID law, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the law targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” And a Wisconsin study recently concluded that its Republican legislature’s restrictive voter ID law kept up to 23,000 voters in two reliably Democratic counties from voting in the 2016 presidential election — which was decided by just 22,748 votes.
In addition to voter ID laws, Republicans in states like Ohio and Georgia are backing attempts to purge infrequent voters from their election rolls. This practice, which has been challenged in federal court, now has the full support of the Justice Department. If these states prevail, this practice could spread around the country, leaving several hundred thousands, if not millions, of unsuspecting registered voters disenfranchised. And for no good reason.