Disenfranchisement is one of the biggest threats to civil rights around the world. With the spread of democracy world-wide, there comes a need for publicly elected officials, freely chosen by the people. However, elections are fraught with corruption, and attempts to prevent citizens from voting have become common practice. In the United States, where the population is deeply divided across political party lines, there is a long history of racial and gender discrimination at the polls.
When the United States of America was founded, only White men who owned property had the right to vote—women and all ethnic minorities were excluded. Gradually, voting rights opened up to White men who did not own property, challenging an elitist political legacy that echoed of the British monarchy and parliament. It was not until the end of the Civil War that Americans sought to end racial discrimination in elections. Because voting eligibility is determined by citizenship, formerly enslaved Blacks had to be recognized as Americans in order to vote, a change that only came when the Union officially put an end to slavery. During the years after the Civil War, an era known as Reconstruction, African-Americans seized upon their new-found right to vote, as guaranteed by the 15th Amendment, and participated in elections at an astounding rate. More Blacks sat in the Senate in the decade following the Civil War than there are today—and there is a reason for that. In 1877, with the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes, a set of laws nicknamed the “Jim Crow Laws” were enacted, effectively putting an end to the progressive changes made during Reconstruction. Northern troops were withdrawn from the racially intolerant South, so the 15th Amendment was no longer enforced. Blacks were once again disenfranchised, demoted to second-class citizens, and segregated from the white population. Militant racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan rose to power in many states, influencing politics and using violence and fear tactics to suppress any retaliatory action.
Despite the rampant violence, which included public lynching of Blacks in almost every state in the Union, people fought back. Starting with organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909, the movement for racial equality became the major social struggle of the 20th century, and culminated in nationwide desegregation of public spaces.
During this same period, the Women’s rights and suffrage movement was gaining momentum. Women, regardless of race, were denied the vote as well, and fought for decades to enjoy that right. As early as 1948, at the Seneca Falls Convention, first-wave Feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke out against women’s inequality. In her famous “Declaration of Sentiments” at Seneca Falls, Stanton called for the “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to [women] as citizens of the United States.” Activists petitioned to have women’s suffrage included in the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th and 15th) that granted Civil Rights to Blacks, but they were unsuccessful, and were forced to seek equality through other means. Significant gains were made in the 1910s, as more Liberal and Progressive Democrats began to be elected to the Federal government, most notably President Woodrow Wilson in 1912. It wasn’t until 1920 that women earned full suffrage with the establishment of the 19th Amendment, through the Supreme Court case Leser vs. Garnett. Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis, the first-ever Jewish appointee to the Supreme Court, wrote the decision in the case.
The fight for equality on both fronts dominated social activism in the following decades. With women finally having a say in elections, they became a key demographic in taking on Civil Rights for Blacks; in fact, White women were pivotal in winning many of the major battles of the movement, being generally more sympathetic to the cause than their male counterparts. Finally, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which barred all discrimination based on race, native language, religion or sex. Though the legislation included voting rights, many practices at the polls continued to be discriminatory. Requiring literacy tests in order to register to vote was one such practice, because it meant that many poor, uneducated Blacks—as well as children of immigrants, who spoke English as a second language—could not score high enough to be considered eligible. A year later in 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act as a means of enforcing the Civil Rights Act and the 15th Amendment, ensuring that citizenship was the only requirement for voting.
Though many political battles were won to establish voting rights for all American citizens, there are many obstacles to equality at the polls that remain to this day. Congress extended the Voting Rights Act throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and once more in 2006, as it became clear that voter discrimination was still preventing thousands of eligible citizens from exercising their constitutional rights. However, there have always been opponents to extending the VRA. Many contend that racial issues no longer have their place in politics, and that such laws have no relevance to the generation that elected Barack Obama, the first African-American to serve as President of the United States. Civil Rights activists retort that the country is still racially imbalanced, especially in elections. Though Blacks have been more fairly represented in recent elections (they make up 13.6% of the total population, and in 2008 they made up 13% of the vote), minority groups such as Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders now find it difficult to be represented at the polls. The large presence of immigrants, both legal and illegal, has contributed to the rise of xenophobic practices at the polls; many legal American citizens of Hispanic origin are forced to provide documentation, while Whites and Blacks are allowed to vote without question. This is a shift from the voting controversy of the mid-20th century, where the disenfranchised groups were African-Americans and women; though critics of the VRA are correct in saying that these groups have become significantly more active in elections, they fail to acknowledge that “new” minorities are still vastly underrepresented.