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The Uphill Battle For Voting Rights Continues

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Black people have exponentially grown as a demographic in the states since our kidnapping. Our population broke a million by the 19th century and continued to increase rapidly to 30 million by the 20th century. While our numbers, and contribution (labor, taxes, etc.) to the United States has grown, unfortunately our influence politically has failed to adapt at the same pace.

As our numbers grew so did those barriers of entry, but with that so did our determination to enter.

After the Civil War, freed enslaved Africans obtained their rights of citizenship but after working unpaid for centuries those rights were limited, still restricting them from the right to vote. This barred us from influencing policy and not only, contributing to the political welfare of our country, but even more devastatingly it closed us off from benefiting from our country politically. This meant that if we wanted to see change or any improvement on some aspect of our community then we had to hope that someone from outside of our community would recognize that need and commit to making that change. This is nearly impossible to achieve for a group that was consistently dehumanized throughout American History. It was essential that we obtain the power to advocate for ourselves. 

It wasn’t until February 3, 1870 that the 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution was ratified, officially granting Black men the right to vote, re-enfranchising about 2.5 million people.

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude”

While the wording of the amendment seemed like a success, there were new obstacles placed in front of us that effectively continued our disenfranchisement. These obstacles included poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud, state policies and intimidation. Some families were under the threat of violence for even attempting to visit a poll place.  It wasn’t until 1915, 45 years after the passing of the 15th amendment, that the Supreme Court struck down the grandfather clause. This was a policy that several states used to disenfranchise Black voters who identified as decedents of a slave. Louisiana was the first state to establish the grandfather clause policy which allowed, “those who were able to vote before 1867 and those whose father or grandfather could vote before 1867 to skip the tests and taxes” (Brenc). Shortly after this North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Virginia all passed similar laws before the Supreme Court finally got involved. This is another example of why we should not allow ridiculous policies (like North Carolina’s new inmate fund restriction policy that takes effect in a few of days) that negatively affect marginalized groups to pass in any state, because idiocy spreads through policy like wildfire when no one from the marginalized group is involved politically to make an influence on potential legislation.

While the idea existed, the right to vote was nonexistent in reality. America had done what it does best, blanket federal policy over a situation that’s null regionally due to opposing local policies. While the nation had seemed to take a stance to the world on the outside, in practice no real progress was made. It wasn’t until 1964, a year after MLK’s second demonstration at the courthouse in Selma, Alabama, that poll tax restrictions were lifted. Once the twenty fourth amendment passed the Voting Rights Act passed that following year prohibiting the use of literacy tests, fraud, intimidation and all other methods of excluding African Americans from practicing their right to vote.

Right2Vote Campaign Ending Felony Disenfranchisement

Sadly, in the same way that slavery evolved, so did the suppression of potential Black voters. Now the direction of suppression has shifted from the poll place to the prisons. In the same way that Black people were barred from influencing legislation 149 years ago, today there is a huge population of millions of people being crushed under the weight of felony disenfranchisement. Now instead of paying poll taxes, an individual must complete their parole (which often requires monitoring fees); instead of taking literacy tests, people are required to be released from state custody (which often includes education requirements and substance abuse tests); and in the same way that intimidating turned a lot of potential voters away, in states like Washington, New Mexico, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia hundreds of thousands of people are too intimidated by their relationship with Departments of Corrections to sort out their voter registration.

Fortunately, this year’s Right2Vote Campaign will be supporting organizers in each of the states where there is current legislation in progress working toward ending felony disenfranchisement. The Right2Vote Report, a monthly newsletter that will be following the progression of voter disenfranchisement legislation, is out so print and circulate copies in your region today. Now is the time to continue on the path that our ancestors began.

Massachusetts SD25 & SD26  – Restores voting rights to incarcerated persons

New Jersey A3456 & S2100– Restores voting rights to incarcerated persons and those in community custody

New Mexico HB 57– Restores voting rights to incarcerated persons

Virginia SJ261 & SJ262 – Restores voting rights to incarcerated persons and those in community custody

Washington SB 5076 – Restores voting rights to persons in community custody; SB 5207 – Demands notification of felony voting rights restoration

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