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Guest blog: Reflection on voting rights during Black History Month

This blog is guest written by Heather Engdahl of Civic Nebraska

From its inception, the United States has devalued, disrespected, and criminalized Black people. For each attempt to address the institutionalized racism in this country, there has been a response of restrictive policy or discriminatory practices to maintain power and control by the white and wealthy.

This behavior is well-documented in 1875 with the Mississippi Plan, which included poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, and more intentionally racially discriminatory policies disguised as measures to bring “integrity” to elections. The poll tax was adopted by all 11 states of the former Confederacy. The Mississippi Plan was a direct response to the addition of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, which granted Black men the right to vote. Although the policies that were part of the Mississippi Plan were somehow read as race-neutral, we know that the disparities in wealth, education, and relations with law enforcement translate to disparities in access to voting between Black people and white people.

In Jim Crow America, whites turned to violence to keep Black people from voting and from being part of society overall. The pressure from the Civil Rights Movement and numerous tragedies from the violence toward Black people finally prompted Congress and the White House to take action. Following the inadequacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. The Voting Rights Act, although long overdue, delivered many measures to enforce the 15th Amendment and protect the right to vote. An important piece of the VRA was to identify jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting and require that the Department of Justice or a federal court approve any change to voting laws in those places.

Of course, many southern states and white people challenged the VRA right away. They fought against the new law and continued attempts to maintain control through violence. However, the VRA prevailed for decades until being gutted in 2013 in the landmark case of Shelby County v Holder. In this decision, the preventative measure requiring federal approval of changes to state voting laws was eliminated. Improved access to voting and participation in elections were a direct result of the VRA, not a result of any decrease in racism or prejudice. Since 2013, we’ve witnessed states passing restrictive and offensive laws to restrict the vote. States have the unchecked power to bring forth terrible bills and laws that would have otherwise had to be reviewed by the federal government to ensure that racial discrimination was prevented. The measure was intended to focus on jurisdictions with long histories of racial discrimination in voting to ensure they don’t repeat those behaviors, yet they are passing discriminatory laws to this day.

After a contentious 2020 presidential election, we experienced severe misinformation from the losing candidate. We continue to witness claims of election fraud to sow doubt in the integrity of our election systems. There are groups of extremists and domestic terrorists pushing this agenda and inciting violence related to this rhetoric. We are witnessing voters in too many states be denied their right to vote or even arrested for making small mistakes with their voter registration (Florida). This is not OK.

Denying the vote to American citizens is so deeply rooted in our nation that we are, again and still, falling for the facade that discriminatory policies can be disguised as measures to “bring integrity to our elections.” It is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not racist,” or “It’s not me who is taking away people’s rights.” If you are not actively fighting against racism, oppression, and voter suppression, then you are passively allowing it all to continue. We must live out the values of anti-racism and anti-harm. We must fight to protect all rights for all people. We must not be complacent. Consider the ways that you were taught about our history and how our history books were already whitewashed. Yet, there are efforts to further censor the teaching of our history of this country.

Saying that you are not racist is not enough. We must continue applying pressure at all levels of government and all institutions to challenge the deeply rooted racism and discrimination which continues to influence our society to this day.

Learn more about the work of Civic Nebraska here.

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