American Democracy Without the Training Wheels

In October of 1926, months before an upcoming Texas election, Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon’s lawsuit Nixon v. Herndon against Texas Democrats made its way to the US Supreme Court for the first time. Dr. Nixon had paid his poll tax to vote in Democratic Party elections two years prior, as was his Constitutional right. He was rejected from the polls on account of a state law that prohibited Black people from voting in Democratic primaries.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Dr. Nixon’s right to vote in Democratic primaries. In lock step, the all-white, all-male Texas Legislature called a special session to circumvent the decision and continue to “disfranchise the negro.” They justified their racism on the technicality that primaries were not elections, and therefore Black people were not prohibited from voting in their elections. Dr. Nixon wouldn’t be able to vote in a Texas primary until 1944.

The blatant racism of Dr. Nixon’s case sounds like a thing of the past, but opponents of universal suffrage have learned by now to keep quiet the reasoning behind their dissent. Although southern states have dominated the movement to constrict the electorate, states across the nation have paralleled their tactics to prevent people of color, women, and the “dependent poor” from voting. Over the years, the focus has transformed from pre-civil rights era voter disfranchisement like property ownership requirements and literacy tests to modern-day voter dilution, including gerrymandering districts to mitigate the power of entire voting blocs. People can’t vote without a photo ID. They have to navigate a voter registration process lined with red tape. Or they wait hours in line to vote on a workday at the only polling location for miles.

American democracy is a teetering toddler still finding its balance on a bike it has nearly outgrown, and the training wheels have been removed too soon. Some argue that the US wasn’t truly democratic until fifty-five years ago with the implementation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which protected people of color in their Fifteenth Amendment right to vote. It prohibited states from imposing restrictions to the franchise based on race. It required states to seek federal “preclearance” of new voting laws to ensure that they would not deny the right to vote based on race. Importantly, it permitted direct federal intervention in the electoral process for certain areas of the country that were known to have implemented voter suppression tactics. Black voter registration and participation increased dramatically shortly after the passing of the VRA.

If the VRA did what it was designed to do, then why was it gutted in the infamous 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case? Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority that “Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

Immediately following Shelby v. Holder, numerous states with a history of racial discrimination rolled back various VRA requirements, such as for same-day registration or pre-registration. Justice Roberts spoke too soon. In 2021 on the heels of the most hostile presidential election of our time, state legislators across the country have already introduced over four times the number of bills designed to restrict voter access as compared to this time last year. Though analysis of voter fraud has shown just several hundred cases of fraud out of billions of ballots cast between 2000 and 2012, the bills that have been introduced nationwide seek to limit mail voting access, impose stricter voter ID requirements, slash voter registration opportunities, and enable more aggressive voter roll purges.

The Court missed a golden opportunity to recognize the modern value of federal oversight for voters of color and ordered Congress to update the formula. Instead, the majority kicked the teeth out of the VRA because of the Court’s opinion that the old coverage formula did not apply to today’s political landscape. Now, the state legislatures that dictate voting laws are left operating without the training wheels of democracy.

Voters of color have seen that, both historically and presently, those in power seek to preserve their power: to disfranchise more than they seek to universalize the ballot to all citizens. The fight for voting rights from Black Americans and communities of color comes from a resolve that has matured with the concept of American democracy itself.

As Dr. Nixon said repeatedly in the face of rejection at the polls, “I’ve got to try.”

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