Disenfranchisement, Suppression, and Gerrymandering: The American Way


(Hill Street Studios / Getty Images)

(Hill Street Studios / Getty Images)

Contrary to what one might expect, the United States Constitution does not specify who is eligible to vote because the Founders believed determining the qualifications for voting was best left to each individual state. Inevitably, the Founders’ lack of input led to one of the most tumultuous and difficult struggles in U.S. history: the fight for enfranchisement and the fight against voter suppression.

Originally, only propertied adult white males were eligible to vote. However, property qualifications for white male suffrage were gradually phased out, disappearing completely in 1856.

One notable characteristic of early voting rights was the status of slaves. The 1787 Constitutional Convention determined that a slave should count as three-fifths of a person when calculating a state’s allocated seats in the United States House of Representatives. This decision, known as the Three-Fifths Compromise, allowed slave states to accumulate more House seats than their free populations would have provided. For instance, in 1793, Southern slave states had 47 of the 105 House seats but would have only had 33 if seats were assigned on just the free population. Slaves did not have the right to vote, but slave states used them to increase representation in the House to better protect the institution of slavery and the disenfranchisement of blacks.

Free blacks were gradually disenfranchised after 1789, and voting rights of black men were not secured until 1870, when the 15th Amendment granted citizens the right to vote “regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, this victory was stripped away in 1890 when many Southern states established suppressive, discriminatory policies such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Poor and illiterate whites were able to vote freely through “grandfather clauses,” laws that permitted anyone whose grandfather had voted prior to the Civil War to be able to vote themselves. These policies were clearly established to sidestep the 15th Amendment and exclude blacks, Native Americans and some immigrants.

Significant changes to voting rights did not take place until the 20th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. However, minority voting, especially among blacks, was still restricted by the suppressive tactics established in the 19th century. Federal poll taxes alone were not abolished until 1964, and the pivotal shift in voting rights did not come until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected minority voting rights and declared discriminatory redistricting of electoral systems illegal. One year later, in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, state poll taxes and literacy tests were declared unconstitutional.

The passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 marked the last major change to voting rights in the United States. This amendment gave adults aged 18 and older the right to vote in response to the drafting of men for the Vietnam War, the majority of whom could not vote for their representatives in state and federal elections before 1971.

However, that is not the end of the story. In fact, even with the passage of so many amendments and laws, voter suppression is widespread in the United States, and the gerrymandering of legislative districts suppresses and discourages many voters across the country.

While there have been recent claims of rampant voter fraud, those claims are largely unwarranted. Voter fraud is practically nonexistent in the United States and is not a serious threat, but voter suppression is widespread, deliberately and commonly used by both Democrats and Republicans alike. Typical voter suppression methods include gerrymandering districts, voter ID laws, prohibiting early voting, requiring minimum voter registration periods before voting, and prohibiting registration and voting on the same day.

Republicans often employ several of these suppression tactics. For instance, they like voter identification laws that require government ID to be presented at voting booths, which is a poll tax in disguise. Republicans manipulate districts to favor conservative majorities and candidates and prohibit early voting and same-day registration and voting. These practices are particularly harmful to newly naturalized citizens and young voters voting for the first time.

Democrats suppress the vote by gerrymandering districts to be filled with minority voters, who are more likely to vote Democratic, thus diluting the white vote. In Thornburg v. Gingles (1986), “minority-majority gerrymandering” was ruled constitutional. However, conservative opposition has declared that such gerrymandering is merely another form of affirmative action.

Another, perhaps unintentional, suppression of the vote occurs on election day: federal elections are, according to the United States Constitution, designated to occur on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November.” Holding elections on a Tuesday, a day of the work week, can make voting difficult for lower- and middle-class Americans. While some states encourage or even order workers to take time off to vote, voting day is not a national holiday and thus voting may be more feasible for higher income, well-educated Americans, who are more able to take time off of work, than for lower-income, less-educated Americans, disproportionately suppressing the poor vote. The problem speaks for itself: in the November 2016 presidential general election, voter turnout was just 54.7 percent. Out of a voting-eligible population of over 230.59 million Americans, only 136.7 million voted, and over 93.9 million Americans stayed home and did not cast a vote.

Making matters worse, criminals and former criminals with felony records are unable to vote. Florida, in particular, has some of the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws of any state in the United States, and possibly the world. In 2010, an estimated 1.5 million Floridians, or about 10 percent of the adult Florida population, were unable to vote. Furthermore, discriminatory criminal justice systems in Florida disproportionately target blacks (who tend to vote Democratic) and, as a result, some 20 percent of Florida’s black population has been stripped of their right to vote.

Taken in a larger context, disproportionate rescission of the voting rights of black citizens is shocking and disturbing; almost 8 percent of black adults are ineligible to vote due to prior convictions, compared to just 1.8 percent of the rest of the adult population. However, there is some hope. In the 2016 general election, Florida’s ineligible felon population was just 224,549 Floridians, a marked decrease from seven years ago. But the ineligible American felon population in 2016 was still 3.25 million Americans, roughly 1.41 percent of eligible voters, or 2.38 percent of the 2016 voter turnout.

And so the fight against voter suppression and for the expansion and defense of voting rights is still a constant and uphill battle. Proposed reforms to enfranchise more voters range from instituting compulsory voting, which  exists in countries such as Australia, to declaring election days as state and federal holidays.

One thing is certain: change is needed. Democrats and Republicans, in ways that are neither transparent nor obvious, benefit from the poor, the young and the less-educated from voting in state and national elections. Primary, legislative and congressional elections are decided, not by the many, but by the few: only the most partisan, most educated and wealthiest Americans are the citizens whom the parties want to vote. By helping the poor, disenfranchised and unregistered become more educated and more participatory in our representative government, real electoral change can come to America.

Leave a Reply