Discovery Set: Controlling the Vote -- Rights. Registration. Representation.
Lacking the power to control how people vote, the next best option for ensuring who gets elected is to control who can vote. The history of attempts to control suffrage, voter registration, and access to the polls in the United States is complicated and contentious.
Eligibility to vote is established both through the United States Constitution and by state law. However, in the early history of the nation, voting requirements were established only by the states, and were generally limited to property-owning or tax-paying white males.
Constitutional amendments (specifically the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments) prohibit the restriction of voting rights on the basis of race, color, previous condition of servitude, sex, or age for those above 18. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation that protects the right to vote for racial and language minorities. The Act's general provisions apply nationwide, and its special provisions apply to certain jurisdictions.
But beyond these federal mandates, states have had a great deal of discretion to establish rules and regulations for voting. During the Jim Crow era, literacy tests and poll taxes limited voter registration, discriminating against racial minorities and the poor. These practices were prohibited by the Supreme Court ruling in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966).
Today, voting rights questions are by no means settled. The practice of gerrymandering, the fairness of electoral systems, felony disenfranchisement, suffrage and access to polls for mentally and physically disabled Americans, voter I. D. requirements, and federal voting rights of citizens living in U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and Guam) are all issues debated by voters, politicians, and the courts.
The materials in this Discovery Set highlight attempts both to limit and to encourage voting. Many of these documents also demonstrate the ongoing tension between the authority granted to the federal government and that given to the states.
Issues of suffrage and voting rights are a constant in United States history, and some arguments seem to surface repeatedly. Alliances and motivations are often complicated.
In the years before woman suffrage, anti-suffrage organizations fought passage of the Nineteenth Amendment with forceful, emotional rhetoric. These groups appealed to and encouraged fear of socialism and labor organization. They were dismayed at the perceived demise of chivalry, and feared the loss of white supremacy. Southern anti-suffrage forces voiced outrage that the federal government should assert authority over states' rights--a particular sore spot for many, given that the Civil War and Reconstruction were still within living memory. These arguments appeared openly in letters, speeches, and publications.
At the same time, white suffragists, who argued for women's rights and their ability to participate in political life, were not necessarily in favor of African American women voting. In the examples presented here, suffragists sought to reassure the public of the efficacy of poll taxes and literacy tests for maintaining white control. These suffragists supported and relied on the power of the states to regulate access to the polls.
For further reading:
Voting Rights Act of 1965. An Introduction. Social Welfare History Project
McNeill, B. (2020 October 22). ‘Jim Crow 2.0’: Author Carol Anderson on the historic — and ongoing — suppression of Black voters. VCU News.
Hedgpeth, D. (2020 November 1). ‘Jim Crow, Indian style’: How Native Americans were denied the right to vote for decades. Washington Post.
Hayter, J. M. (2017). The dream is lost. Voting rights and the politics of race in Richmond, Virginia. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky
Moeser, J. V. & Dennis, R. M. (2020). The politics of annexation. Oligarchic power in a southern city. Open Access Edition. Digital publisher: VCU Libraries. Original (1982) edition Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company
Fessler, P. Coronavirus May Reshape Who Votes And How In The 2020 Election. (2020 April 10). National Public Radio
Draper, R. (2012 October). The League of dangerous mapmakers. The Atlantic
Redistricting guru's hard drives could mean legal, political woes for GOP (2019, June 6), National Public Radio
Federal judge blocks Tennessee voter registration law, citing harm to 'constitutional rights' (2019 September 12). Tennesseean.
Tarter, B. (2020 January 9) Gerrymanders: How redistricting has protected slavery, white supremacy, and partisan minorities in Virginia. Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
Voting, Social Welfare History Image Portal
Voting rights, Social Welfare History Image Portal