As the 2020 Presidential election quickly approaches, it is more critical than ever that we take action to reclaim the values and promise of our electoral process. Since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression has been on the rise and has denied voting rights to millions, people of color in particular. The impacts of COVID-19 will further exacerbate voter suppression. The election in November is one of the most important elections in U.S. history. We must address historic issues of voter suppression and systemic racism so that all people are able to exercise their right to vote.
The 15th amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from denying someone the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.[i] This amendment, passed in 1870, sought to grant African American men the right to vote and paved the way for the 19th Amendment, passed in 1920. However, states found a way around the 15th amendment using literacy tests, poll taxes, moral character tests, and grandfather clauses. When combined with overtly illegal efforts of white Americans, such as threats of violence, beatings and lynchings, and the loss of property and jobs, these measures kept many Black Americans off the voting rolls.
It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that many Black Americans were able to register to vote and participate in the democratic process. The Voting Rights Act provided federal enforcement of voting rights and created mechanisms for oversight. This was a pivotal step towards equality for Black Americans. However, this victory was always contested and its gains virtually halted.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which identified which states and counties were subject to a preclearance requirement based on their historical use of suppressive tactics, was unconstitutional.[ii] The preclearance requirement mandated jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to seek preapproval from the Department of Justice before changing voting laws. Removing the preclearance requirement took away the federal government’s capacity for enforcement and oversight, leaving millions of citizens of color vulnerable to voter suppression. The General Assembly analyzes and calls for reversing the 2013 ruling in its 2016 resolution, Election Protection and Integrity in Campaign Finance.
Since this ruling, many states have passed extremely restrictive voting laws. Among these are restrictive voter ID requirements, voter purges, proof of citizenship, restrictions on voter registration, and unduly limiting early and absentee voting opportunities. Many of these tactics were used in the 2018 Georgia mid-term election, a historical election where Stacey Abrams sought to become the first Black female governor in the United States. Efforts of voter suppression and disenfranchisement will likely get stronger as the effects of Coronavirus continues to spread and disproportionately impact people of color. The Wisconsin primary election on April 7this an example of how the pandemic endangers voting rights.
On April 6th, amid the Coronavirus pandemic, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled to continue with primary and general elections on April 7th and not extend the state’s absentee ballot deadline. [iii] The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court backed them up. As a result, in Milwaukee, only five polling locations were open, a massive decline from the 180 polling locations the city provided in 2016.[iv] Because of the limited number of polling locations, many people were not able to vote in person. Those who did vote in person stood in long lines, which posed a health and safety risk because of Coronavirus. According to Milwaukee Health Department, Milwaukee is a hotspot where Black Americans are infected and dying of COVID-19 accounting for about 50 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 81 percent of the fatalities.[v] The reality of higher exposure and death rates, coupled with extremely long lines at the few polling locations placed Black voters at disproportionate risks when voting in person. Once again, Black Americans were forced to choose between their lives or exercising their constitutional right to vote.
In 2008, in the policy, Lift Every Voice, the 218th PC(U.S.A.) General Assembly affirmed that “to deny anyone a fair vote is a sin.”[vi] Going further, to deny equitable and safe access to voting is a sin and fundamentally goes against our Reformed Christian belief. Every person has inherent worth and value and deserves an equal voice in our democratic system. As people of faith, it is our collective call and responsibility to fight against structures of oppression and systemic racism. Scare tactics related to Covid are likely to increase, along with other forms of gerrymandering by public health neglect and opposition to universal mail-in voting. We must work to end voter suppression and to ensure equitable access to voting for all.
Christian Brooks serves as the Representative for Domestic Issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Office of Public Witness. Her responsibilities include education and advocacy around domestic issues of concern for the church including voting rights, racial equity, and environmental justice issues. Before joining the Office of Public Witness, Christian did extensive work on issues of racial equity and food security. She served as the Racial Equity Policy Fellow for Bread for the World Institute where she assisted with writing a research paper on racial equity in federal nutrition programs. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from the University of Pittsburgh, a Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and a Master of Science in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University.