What You Didn’t Know About White Supremacy and Voting Rights

After the events of Charlottesville, I find myself thinking about voting. Trump obviously believes his small base of Nazis and Klan Members are more important to his 2020 re-election campaign than the millions of people of color whose rights he has trampled over. Unfortunately, he may be right. The GOP, while distancing themselves publicly from Trump’s white supremacist allies, continue to do the work of such groups by pursuing voter suppression techniques in preparation for the 2018 mid-term elections.

These two issues are intimately related, as the bumpy, uphill struggle for equal voting rights is also, for white supremacists, a steady peeling away of their political dominance. Let’s look at some of the major milestones in the history of civil and voting rights.

1787: The Three-Fifths Compromise of the US Constitution

During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Northern and Southern delegates agreed that, for the purposes of taxation owed to the federal government and state representation in federal legislatures, state censuses would count each black slave as three-fifths of a person. This is not to say that a black person could vote in slave-holding states, but they theoretically counted (partially) as constituents. Which of course means nothing when you can’t vote.

1870: The 15th Amendment of the US Constitution

After the Confederacy was defeated, this was the constitutional amendment that stated a citizen could not be denied the right to vote on the basis of race. It theoretically acknowledged all emancipated black slaves (and those who had already been freemen in non-slaveholding states) as citizens with full voting rights at the federal level. Note, however, that this amendment specifically excluded Native American Indians (as had the 1787 Constitution) as untaxed non-citizens. The American Indian Wars were still in full swing at this time, and would continue for (depending on whom you ask) another 10- or 50-odd years.

1920: The 19th Amendment of the US Constitution

This amendment stated the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of sex. Both white and black women were theoretically able to vote anywhere in the United States after this amendment was passed.

1965: The US Voting Rights Act

Some individual American Indian nations, starting with the Cherokee in an 1817 treaty, bargained for the rights of citizenship over the years (though many nations remained non-citizens), but this did not usually come with voting rights, and the path to even this partial citizenship was fraught with problems, e.g., requiring that a person give up Indian status in order to be recognized as American. Over the years, some American Indian men tried unsuccessfully to register to vote (Elk v. Wilkins, 1884, where the Supreme Court ruled against voting rights for Indians), but even the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act did not grant voting rights. Only the 1965 Voting Rights Act did that unequivocally and across the country.

Meanwhile, In Canada…

Slavery was abolished in Canada (and all other British colonies) in 1834, and the newly enfranchised black Canadian men did immediately have the theoretical right to vote. In practice, voting rights came with minimum property values, so only wealthier black men could actually cast a ballot (and racist voter intimidation was not unheard of in some places, just as in the Reconstruction-era American South).

Women won the right to vote in federal elections in 1918, some 50 years after Canada confederated into a country, with most provinces granting provincial voting rights within a couple of years on either side of that. However, it wasn’t until 1948 that denial of voting based on race was actually banned explicitly, so certain groups, like ethnic Japanese, had been denied the vote prior to that. (Not unrelated, the Canadian internment of Japanese citizens during World War Two remains one of many low moments for the country.)

The complex treaty relationship between Indigenous Canadians and the federal government meant it was not until 1952 that Indigenous men were able to achieve full voting rights without being forced to renounce their Indian status under the Canadian Indian Act (many had done so, by the way, in order to be able to fight for their country in the two World Wars; as a result, they came home and were not allowed to return to their families and communities). Indigenous women received full voting rights in 1960, a weird case of intersectional prejudice, as Indigenous people and women both had the vote by 1952, and somehow Indigenous women were treated as a separate category.

In the decades since, Indigenous Canadians, moreso than any other group, have had a slow, uphill struggle to have their rights recognized, both in the treaties they signed and as full and equal citizens under the law. Both American and Canadian legislation relating to Indigenous/Native groups referred to these nations as wards of the state, treating the government as a parent and Indigenous women and men as overgrown children. In both countries, “growing up” (becoming enfranchised) meant ceasing to be Native American/First Nations. Which leads us to…

…There Are Voting Rights and Then There Are Voting Rights

Let’s get back to African American voting. The brief timeline I’ve provided really doesn’t cover the full story. The Emancipation Proclamation and Union victory in the Civil War supposedly freed the slaves, but former slaveholding states made all kinds of unconstitutional local laws that allowed slavery to continue well into the twentieth-century, unchecked. Likewise, enfranchisement was supposed to come with voting rights, but there were all kinds of local laws enacted that prevented freed black men from voting.

It had been illegal to teach a slave to read and write, so is it any surprise that slaveholding states immediately started requiring literacy tests in order to vote? If you’re not convinced that this was racially-motivated, you might be interested to know that illiterate white men, of which there were many, were “grandfathered in” as long-time enfranchised voters, and exempt from the same tests that barred black men from voting.

Today, voter suppression continues to be a major past-time for white politicians. The party of Lincoln now does everything it can in states across the country to make it harder for African Americans and Latinos to vote, from requiring multiple IDs, to shortening voting station hours, to decreasing the number of voting stations, to disallowing advance voting or mail-in ballots. You’ll hear a lot of talk about preventing voter fraud, but this is racist dog-whistling.

And there’s more. The president, as you know, does not have to win the popular vote to win the presidency, and some states’ citizens are severely limited in their ability to affect federal election results, due to disproportional numbers of electoral delegates, winner-take-all systems, and gerrymandering, for a start. As just one example, Washington, D.C., which has a high African American population as well as high numbers of low-income people, is essentially disenfranchised from the electoral process based on where they live. And we haven’t even discussed US territories.

Republicans, unfortunately, have realized they can win without representing the greater majority of American citizens, especially (though not exclusively) people of color. It’s probably time to do something about that. The fight for universal suffrage is not yet done.

Photo credit: Library of Congress

50 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 months ago

This is a lot of hog wash & half truths. The writer does not tell you that it was the Democrats who started the KKK. It was the Republicans who passed those laws that freed slaves and then gave them the vote. It was also the Republicans who passed the civil rights laws. These laws were passed with no Democrat votes or very few of them.

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Stephanie s
Stephanie s3 months ago

Thank you

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Stephanie s
Stephanie s3 months ago

Thank you

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Stephanie s
Stephanie s3 months ago

Thank you

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE4 months ago

Okay

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld4 months ago

Margaret G.,
Outside of the political parties trying to manipulate the system to their own advantage, neither party is against voting rights. Both will do whatever is legally (?) possible to get their voters to the polls, while impeding their opponents.

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Margaret G
Margaret Goodman4 months ago

Dan Blossfeld seems to believe that the Republicans are not against voting rights. As far as I know, ever since 1967, every attempt to stifle voting has come from Republican politicians.

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Margaret G
Margaret Goodman4 months ago

David F. seemed to write that only the Republicans defeated the Nazis. Democratic President Roosevelt had nothing to do with it??

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Leanne K
Leanne K4 months ago

I cant believe the U.S doesnt make everyone vote! Its not fool proof ( apt use of words...) but its equal.
I always think " Our grandmothers went to jail so I could vote, I can stroll up to the polling booth!

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Leanne K
Leanne K4 months ago

People tend to only think of themselves. While the coyntry seems fine and dandy, why worry about what that group are grizzling about. See where it leads? Its a crazy system and it needs fixing. Good luck!

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