By Ja’Nell Gore
This story was originally published by South Kern Sol, a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County in California’s Central Valley. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in underserved communities across Kern.
Voting has always been, and still is, a very important right — a right that some groups have fought for for decades. It allows citizens to have a voice in policies being passed and in who makes decisions. This is why our ancestors fought so hard to make sure we had the right to vote.
“The reason it’s especially important for African Amercians to get out there and vote is because voting is a form of power,” said Bakersfield College History Professor Jamal Wright. “What I mean by power is it can be defined as the ability to influence other individuals to do something that you want them to do.”
It’s been 150 years since Congress ratified the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from denying citizens the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
Although this amendment granted Black men the right to vote, they had to deal with voter suppression for decades to come.
It started with the literacy tests and grandfather clauses.
Grandfather clauses only allowed citizens to vote if they were eligible before slavery ended or if your grandfather was able to vote. Louisiana passed “grandfather clauses” in 1896 to keep former slaves and their descendants from voting. As a result, registered Black voters dropped from 44.8 percent in 1896 to 4 percent four years later, according to the ACLU. Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama and Virginia followed Louisiana’s lead by enacting their own grandfather clauses.
The U.S. Supreme Court did not rule this unconstitutional until 1915.
Literacy tests ensured only educated people were voting. It was up to the registration officials to determine the content of the test and who passed and who didn’t, the National Museum of American History says. Only 3 percent of eligible African Americans in the South were registered to vote in 1940 because of Jim Crow laws, like literacy tests and poll taxes, according to the ACLU.
After years of voters dealing with rules like grandfather clauses and literacy tests and years of being harassed and killed for registering to vote, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965. This permanently barred barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities, prohibiting any election practice that denies the right to vote on account of race, and requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval for changes in their election laws before they can take effect.
Although it’s been 150 years since the 15th Amendment was adopted, U.S. citizens are still dealing with voter suppression today. In 2011, South Carolina, Texas and Florida passed restrictions to voting that disproportionately impacted minority voters. In that same year, a record number of restrictions to voting were introduced in state legislatures nationwide, including photo ID requirements, cuts to early voting and restrictions to voter registration, the ACLU reports.
Just this year, roughly 12,500 mail-in ballots in Georgia were rejected in the state’s June primary, while California tossed more than 100,000 absentee ballots during its March primary, ABC reports.
“Reasons vary, from ballots being received after the deadline to voters’ signatures not matching the one on file with the county clerk,” ABC reports. “Multiple studies show mail-in ballots from Black voters, like those from Latino and young voters, are rejected at a higher rate than those of white voters.”
The good news is that we have the chance to fix voter suppression now. Congress can pass a new, flexible and forward-looking set of protections that work together to guarantee our right to vote. Since 2006, Congress extended key sections of the Voting Rights Act on four occasions in overwhelming, bipartisan votes. Now, people are advocating for the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require states get pre-clearance before changes to voting procedures are made, such as voting locations, materials available or any other methods.
By being able to vote, we have the power to make sure policies are passed that will benefit our communities and that we have people in power who care about our issues.
When I turned 18, I was so happy to finally have a say in what happens to me. Voting and encouraging others to vote puts us one step closer to making sure we don’t take another step back.
I believe it is very important for people to vote so that we can get to a point where we do not have to worry about places still trying to stop us. Each election that we choose to make our voices heard puts us one step closer to ensuring those in power care about us.
VOTER REGISTRATION INFORMATION
This year’s Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Those in California who would like to register to vote can still do so by filling out an online application here. In California, the deadline to register to vote for any election is 15 days before Election Day.
If you would like to register using a paper voter registration application, you can pick one up at your county elections office, library, Department of Motor Vehicles offices or U.S. Post Office. To request a paper voter registration application be mailed to you, please call (800) 345-VOTE(8683).
Registration forms being mailed must be postmarked or submitted electronically no later than Oct. 19, 2020.
To pre-register to vote, youth can do so here. Online pre-registration is available for eligible 16 and 17 year olds.
If you have any questions, contact the Secretary of State’s Elections Division at (800) 345-VOTE (8683).
Follow more stories from South Kern Sol and our other partners in the California Youth Media Network on Twitter.