The fight for free and fair access to the ballot continues more than 150 years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment. Even with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black Americans have consistently had an uphill battle to ensure consistent and undisturbed voting access.
Back in 1866, Frederick Douglass lobbied President Andrew Johnson for the right to vote. His calls fell on deaf ears, as it would take another four years before Congress would ratify the 15th amendment granting Black men the right to vote. The Atlantic published an appeal from Douglass to Congress in its January 1867 edition requesting impartial suffrage.
As Douglass noted, protecting democracy and ensuring access to the ballot box requires decisive federal action. “There is but one safe and constitutional way to banish that mischievous hope from the South, and that is by lifting the laborer beyond the unfriendly political designs of his former master,” Douglass wrote.
The current moment is in many ways reminiscent of the time Douglass wrote his letter. Fueled with lies and malcontent, a mob attacked the nation’s capital upset about the outcome of an election. It was angered by a multiracial coalition of voters exercising their rights across multiple states to decisively defeat their preferred candidate.
Envisioning themselves the new wave of patriots fighting for yet another “lost cause,” these individuals were incited to act by the words and commands of elected officials including the former president.
Douglass argued that wanting to make peace should not come at the expense of friends and natural allies. “To make peace with our enemies is all well enough; but to prefer our enemies and sacrifice our friends, — to exalt our enemies and cast down our friends, — to clothe our enemies, who sought the destruction of the government, with all political power, and leave our friends powerless in their hands, — is an act which need not be characterized here,” explained Douglass.
Fast forward to today, where GOP lawmakers in several states have introduced bills to restrict voting rights, and there is a reminder that fear of the Black vote is not new and not relegated to the south only.
The Brennan Center for Justice found efforts to restrict voting access increased three times since last year, with 100 proposed laws in 28 states. According to the Brennan Center’s report, the same people outraged at losing to a diverse coalition of voters in the 2020 election, are now focused on restricting the use of absentee ballots, imposing stricter voter ID requirements, and limiting pro-voter registration practices.
The report points to the connection between lawmakers backing unfounded claims of voter fraud and election interference from Trump Republicans and the current proposals.
But Republican lawmakers and high-level strategists have a long history of using claims of fraud to circumvent equal access to the ballot. Republicans seem more focused on selecting who can vote instead of earning votes.
Concerns about moving forward from the tumultuous 2020 election cycle need a clear national directive that centers national interests and enshrines protections for the ballot.
At the start of the current session, Senate Democrats named H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a top priority. Previously delayed by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, H.R. 1 along with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would go a long way to protecting the rights of voters and restoring confidence in the election process.
Introduced in the Senate as S.1, the legislation contains multiple provisions to expand access to the democratic process. Called the most sweeping reform since the 1960s, S.1 addresses voting rights, campaign finance, and ethics laws.
Key provisions include automatic voter registration, an end to partisan gerrymandering for congressional districts, expanding vote-by-mail, mandating 15 days for early voting nationwide and restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. In recent years, rights restoration has garnered national attention with the passage of Amendment 4 in Florida. Creating a clear federal right to vote for formerly incarcerated people will expand participation and potentially pave the way for state legislation to do the same.
Additional provisions directly address integrity issues from the 2020 election such as preventing a state chief election officer from participating in federal campaigns. Another provision prevents states from interfering with efforts to enact curbside voting. Right before the 2020 election, Texas Republicans attempted to toss votes cast through curbside voting in Harris County, where Houston is located.