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OPINION: Maps, ballots, race and power: The history of voting rights in America is a sordid history

Originally published by Jennifer Roberts in Q City Metro on March 2, 2022

Candidate filing for the 2022 elections is in full swing (finally). District maps have been drawn, contested, re-drawn, contested, and finally approved by the courts and the “special masters” in an obscure and byzantine process that only political geeks have been able to follow.

But these district lines matter. Access to the ballot matters. And in a discussion I moderated on Feb. 23 on the history of voting rights in America, it was made abundantly clear that political power matters – and that voting rights are the gateway to that power.

The virtual panel was organized by the Reimagining America Project, an organization that aims to “call to account the history of racialized oppression” in order to foster “systemic change” and “end white supremacy and systemic racism.” The session opened dramatically with Rev. Rodney Sadler, who chairs the Reimagining America Project, standing in front of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

The history of voting rights in America is a sordid history, full of all the various ways that certain groups have been excluded from voting and from having a say in who governs them and how they are governed. Excluding those groups from voting meant excluding them from power. Free Newsletter We know that the original framers of our Constitution did not believe in universal suffrage. Our nation was from the start an exclusive democracy; the “consent of the governed” was limited to the consent of all the white male property owners.

We know that women won the right to vote only in 1920, after years of advocating and protesting. And African Americans were subjected to even more discriminatory hurdles, including poll taxes, literacy tests and more, and did not truly have their votes protected until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

This Act placed a “pre-clearance” requirement on certain states with a history of racist voter suppression, whereby any new voting law had to be approved by the federal government. I learned from UNC professor Claude Clegg that, between 1965 and 2013, more than 2,000 restrictive voting bills were written in various states, but they were not passed into law because of that Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Those discriminatory bills did not pass the pre-clearance test of the federal government. Slowly, gradually, more African Americans were able to participate in voting, and in running for office, and in governing.

Progress was made in the ongoing struggle to ensure that all people are, in fact, “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and that our government derives its powers from “the consent of the governed.”

Now that progress has been halted, and attempts are being made to reverse direction and to erode hard-fought wins over voter access, voting rights and power. It began with the Citizens United case in 2010, in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed even more corporate money to flow into campaigns. It continued with the Supreme Court gutting Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 by removing the pre-clearance requirement for several states, including North Carolina.

That erosion of voting rights has culminated in the past year with more than 34 restrictive voting laws passed in 19 states since Donald Trump lost re-election and propagated the “stop the steal” myth. Voter fraud is the mythical reason given for these restrictions, but the real reason – to keep people of color from the polls and from the halls of political power – is evident.

This conversation with a panel of voting rights experts is worth a listen. My guests included Hilary Green, associate professor of history at the University of Alabama; Claude Gregg, a UNC Chapel Hill professor, author and frequent national commentator; and Robert Wilson, a former N.C. assistant secretary of state, who served in that office for 20 years. Their knowledge and insights are riveting, informative and inspirational. You can watch it on YouTube here.

This year is a mid-term election, when voter turnout can drop by 50% or more from that of a presidential year. Voting – and the power and voice it brings – must be important because, in some states, those in power are doing all they can to take away and limit voting rights and access.

So, when you think about voting, remember the words of our panelist, Mr. Wilson, who said: “Freedom isn’t free.”

Learn the candidates, make a plan to vote, confirm where your precinct is and when it is open, and show up.

Vote as if your life depended on it. Because it does.

Jennifer Watson Roberts was elected mayor of Charlotte in 2015 and served one term. She had perviously served as chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

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