African Americans and the Vote” is the 2020 Black History Month theme from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
With the first voting for November elections already completed in Iowa this week, focusing on African Americans and voting is timely.
When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began its voter registration drive in Mississippi in 1961, McComb in Pike County became the epicenter of the effort, according to the Civil Rights Movement Archive maintained by a group of former civil rights activists.
At that time Pike County had a black population of 8,000, but only 200 of them – 2.5 percent – were registered voters.
Several months ago I wrote about voter suppression after the passing of Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, a staunch civil rights activitist and legislator who argued “that the right to vote was fundamental to American democracy and served as the cornerstone for all other rights.” I was roundly criticized by a couple of readers who feel no one should object to voter I.D. laws.
The description from the Civil Rights Movement archivists of what was required in 1961 to get even a handful of African Americans registered to vote demonstrates how determined those African Americans were to use the voting booth to improve their circumstances and how determined the white power structure was to keep the status quo:
“In August (1961) SNCC workers in McComb begin teaching Blacks the complexities of the voter registration process. All 21 questions on the application form have to be studied and understood, and all 285 sections of the Mississippi constitution have to be mastered. After attending the class, 16 local Blacks journey through a century of fear to the Pike County courthouse in Magnolia. Six manage to pass the test and be registered.”
Astute strategists in the Republican Party have managed to use gerrymandering tactics, Democratic party-switchers and other tactics to gain power far beyond their percentage of the population.
Similarly, political and business interests have combined over time to persuade many people that political power must be wrested from ordinary voters so that they can retain control over outcomes.
A recent example demonstrates the ways basic voting rights are being denied to individuals.
In November 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 by a 65 percent majority vote, restoring voting rights to individuals convicted of felony crimes except murder and felony sex crimes.
Set to take effect in January 2019, the new law restored voting rights to about 1.4 million Florida residents. However, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature enacted a law to require that people with felony convictions be required to pay all fines and fees before they could register to vote.
After a civil rights group challenged the new Florida law in court as a “poll tax,” a judge in October 2019, issued a preliminary injunction against the law limiting ex-felon voter registration.
In most states voting rights are restored after an individual has served the required sentence, with various requirements for petitioning and applying to the state for restoration of those rights.
Just as minority groups have been victimized by old voter registration laws, new methods are now being used, and voter education and protecting voter rights must remain high priorities.