Know Your Rights

A RED Voting Module

Why It’s Important To Vote

My Vote Don’t Count

So maybe you watched the last video and you thought to yourself, “well that sounds good and all, but I’ve been voting and what has it ever done for me and my community….?”And frankly, that’s a great question. Real progress takes time and a persistent effort from voters. It also requires us to really understand how governmental systems operate. Check out the video below. It’ll shed a little light on the subject.

Voting Introduction

People showing up to vote is fundamental to a healthy democracy! To begin, lets define voter turnout. Voter turnout is the number of registered voters who vote in an election. So if 10 people are registered to vote and 9 people actually vote, then we would say we have high voter turnout. If 10 people are registered to vote, and only 3 of them show up to vote, we would say we have low voter turnout! So why does this matter?

Low voter turnout is usually a sign that people aren’t politically active. It also usually means that people believe that voting for one candidate/party will do little to alter every day life. Research tells us that healthy democracies tend to have higher turnout than other countries.

However, voter turnout in the U.S. is much lower than most established democracies! During the 2016 presidential election, less than 60% of the country voted!

When compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. voter turnout is considered low. In countries where voting is strongly encouraged, and failure to vote is sometimes penalized, (Australia, Belgium, and Chile) voter turnout hovered near 90% in the 2000s. Other countries, like Austria, Sweden, and Italy, experienced turnout rates near 80%. Overall, most developed countries experience turnout rates of about 70%.

Voter Turnout

*Source: Pew Research Center & @StatisaCharts

History of The Voting Rights Act

During the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, Congress passed the 15th Amendment which ensured that people could not be denied the right to vote because of their race. In other words, the 15th Amendment granted non-white men in America the right to vote!

However, in the decades leading up to The Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black people in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including:

  • Poll taxes – which levied fees in order to vote; making it nearly impossible for impoverished Black people to cast their ballot.
  • Literacy tests – a test given to determine if you are eligible to vote. These tests were administered by White men, and were often manipulated in order to make it impossible for Black people to vote, and
  • Other bureaucratic restrictions to obstruct and deny them the right to vote.

Along with the difficulties mentioned above, Black people also faced harassment, intimidation, financial consequences, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few Black Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally.

1964 – Numerous demonstrations were held, and the considerable violence that erupted brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights. The murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Selma, AL, gained national attention and persuaded President Johnson and Congress to initiate meaningful and effective national voting rights legislation.

1965 – On August 6, 1965, the combination of public unrest to the demonstration conflicts and President Johnson’s political skills compelled Congress to pass the voting rights bill which essentially outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the civil war as a prerequisite to voting. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new Black voters are registered; one-third of them by federal examiners.

1970 – President Richard Nixon signs an extension of the Voting Rights Act. This also lowered the voting age in the country to 18.

1972 – Barbara Jordan (Houston, TX) and Andrew Young (Atlanta, GA) are the first African Americans elected to Congress from the South since Reconstruction.

1975 – Another extension of the Voting Rights Act is signed by President Gerald Ford. The extension of this act permanently ends literacy tests nationwide and provided language assistance for “language minority” voters. The law also extends the “preclearance” provisions that require courts to monitor states with a history of discrimination.

1982 – Amidst controversy among civil rights groups and grass-roots lobbying, President Ronald Reagan signs a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act.

1990 – Due, in part, to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, the number of Black elected officials in Georgia grows to 495 in 1990. Georgia only had three black elected officials prior to the Voting Rights Act.

2006 – Congress extends Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for an additional 25 years. Section 5 requires all 16 states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to approve election-related changes with the federal government before the changes are made.

2010-2016 – From 2010 through 2016, several Southern states (Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana) have objected to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

2011 – A record number of restrictions to voting were introduced in state legislatures nationwide, such as:

  • Photo ID requirements
  • Cuts to early voting
  • Restriction to vote registration

Many of these states have histories of voter discrimination and are covered under the Voting Rights Act. Laws restricting the rights to vote in Southern states are found to disproportionately impact minority voters.

2013 – Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court Case. In this case, the Supreme Court’s ruling resulted in the elimination of PRECLEARANCE, or the rule that states with a history of voter discrimination had to get permission from the federal government before making changes to voting laws. The result of this decision is exactly what you would expect: in many states it became harder for poor and minority voters to cast ballots.

Lets make sure that we all understand this point. Before 2013, the federal government required states with a history of voter discrimination to ask permission before making any changes to voting rules. This process was called Preclearance. The Supreme Court, the most powerful court in America, eliminated Preclearance in 2013 during the Shelby v. Holder case. This allowed states with a history of voter discrimination to change their voting rules to once again allow for voter discrimination. We will discuss this more in the following section.

As you can see in the maps below, most states that were under federal watch for voter discrimination passed discriminatory laws after the Shelby v. Holder decision.

You can get a more detailed look at laws passed in individual states in response to Shelby v. Holder here or at the link below.

Shelby v. Holder – Deeper Look

As we discussed in the prior section, the Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision is having a huge impact on voting in America. The Atlantic, a digital news outlet, had this to say about the Shelby decision:

“In practice, the decision means that communities facing new discriminatory voting laws have had to file suits themselves or rely on Justice Department suits or challenges from outside advocates—sometimes after the discriminatory laws have already taken effect. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions (US AG 2017-18), the Department hasn’t been interested in filing such suits, meaning that citizens have been on their own. The results have been predictable. Voter-identification laws, which experts suggest will make voting harder especially for poor people, people of color, and elderly people, have advanced in several states, and some voting laws that make it easier to register and cast ballots have been destroyed. For many of the jurisdictions formerly under preclearance, voting became rapidly more difficult after the Shelby County decision, particularly for poor and elderly black people and Latinos. ”

You can read more of The Atlantic’s piece about the Shelby decision here.

Chief Justice John Roberts’s, who is the most senior justice, or judge, on the Supreme Court, argued that preclearance was so effective in reversing disenfranchisement that the country no longer needed it. In her dissent, which is an alternative opinion in a Supreme Court ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out the irony of that reasoning, writing that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Women’s Suffrage

Womens Suffrage

America’s struggle for ALL voices and votes to be heard and counted has lasted for generations. The decades-long battle for women to have the right to vote was no exception and was plagued with challenges and setbacks. In the mid-1800’s, in order for women to be considered an equal part of society and important enough to have their voices heard, they had to organize and coordinate their efforts to rise up to demand that their voices be heard. Prior to these efforts, women’s voices were often muted due to their gender and lack of property ownership.

In many Southern states, the women’s suffrage movement was linked in the minds of many with the abolition movement, and old prejudices still simmered. These deep-rooted prejudices greatly slowed progress in these efforts. In fact, in the South, feminism was viewed as being in opposition to conservative religion and traditions. In order to win their right to vote, a right afforded largely to white males, women and their supporters had to organize, strategize and protest frequently and in large numbers . Through fierce activism and campaigning, activists and reformers would eventually win the right to vote for women after nearly a 100 year battle.

Ultimately, in 1920, the tireless efforts of women like Alice PaulSusan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt would usher in what would become the historic establishment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. To further highlight the significance of having our all-important collective votes counted individually; this amendment was passed by a mere margin of 1 vote.

Please review the video below for a quick recap of the women’s suffrage movement:

Primary And General Elections

So, what’s the deal with Primary and General elections? What’s the difference and which one’s more important?

While the differences in both elections are distinct, they’re both important and officially casting your ballot in these elections is critical to your voice being heard.

In the US, there are two kinds of major elections: Primary and General. Both are significant in determining the will of the people as these processes ultimately select who the people want to run for each party, and then which party’s candidate they choose over the other party’s candidate.

Primary Election is a nominating election. It often means you’re selecting who you believe to be the most qualified from your preferred party or “team” and has the best chance of winning against the nominee from an opposing party in the (main) General Election. As an example, this means that Republicans run against other Republicans and Democrats run against other Democrats in primary elections. In a primary election, you are only allowed to vote for one party’s candidate. Your vote then goes toward gaining the nomination of your preferred party. Winning the party’s nomination is the first step in the election process.

General Election is the main election in which all voters make the final choice from among the party nominees and the independent candidates for a specific office. This vote is mostly between those individuals nominated by their party in the primary elections, but it also includes any independent candidates.

The General Election for the U.S. presidential race is held every four years on Election Day, which is always the first Tuesday in November. Primary elections have many different dates before the general election. The Democrats and Republicans have different schedules for their party’s primaries. The Democrats run primary elections from January to June and the Republicans from January to July. Primary results are determined well before the general election in November.

Red party primary

Voting With A Criminal Record

It has been common practice in the United States to make felons ineligible to vote – in some cases – permanently. The decision is made on a state-by-state basis.

In summary:

  • In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated.
  • In 16 states and the District of Columbia, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated, and receive automatic restoration upon release.
  • In 21 states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration, and for a period of time after, typically while on parole and/or probation. Voting rights are automatically restored after this time period. Former felons may also have to pay any outstanding fines, fees or restitution before their rights are restored as well.
  • In 11 states felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order to restore the right to vote, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) or require additional action before voting rights can be restored. These states are listed in the fourth category on Table 1. Details on these states are found in Table 2 below.

Between 1996 and 2008, 28 states passed new laws on felon voting rights

  • Seven repealed lifetime disenfranchisement laws, at least for some ex-offenders.
  • Two gave probationers the right to vote.
  • Seven improved data-sharing procedures among state agencies.
  • Nine passed requirements that ex-offenders be given information and/or assistance in regaining their voting rights at the time they complete their sentence.
  • Twelve simplified the process for regaining voting rights, for instance, by eliminating a waiting period or streamlining the paperwork process.

For a more detailed look into how each state handles voting rights for those with felony convictions, take a look at the chart below.

Voting Rights by state

Voter purges are an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists. When done poorly, they can prevent eligible people from casting a ballot.

How To Register To Vote

Register To Vote!

What To Expect When Voting

“Never Doubt That A Small Group of Thoughtful Committed Citizens Can Change The World: Indeed It’s The Only Thing That Ever Has.”

– Margaret Mead