Protecting the right to vote

SMSU professors discuss history of voting rights, and challenges today

Photo by Deb Gau During Wednesday’s event, SMSU students stopped by a table with voting information. SMSU student organizations and Campus Compact shared how college students can register to vote.

MARSHALL — Ensuring the right of Americans to vote, regardless of their skin color, was a key part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But the push to protect voting rights didn’t end there, Southwest Minnesota State University professors said. Legislation and Supreme Court decisions on voting rights continue to have a big impact even today.

“It will have significant influence on our democratic life,” said Doug Simon, one of the panelists speaking at a voting rights presentation Wednesday. Professors went over the changing history of voting rights in the U.S., from the framing of the Constitution up to today.

The event was organized as a change from the Martin Luther King Day events originally planned at SMSU this week. This year, King’s family requested that no MLK Day celebrations be held without the passage of voting rights legislation.

“Dr. King was fully committed to voting rights,” said Jeff Kolnick, one of the panelists at Wednesday’s event.

Over the nation’s history, Americans have held different beliefs about who should have the right to vote, said panelist Joan Gittens.

“Now, we tend to think about it almost as a sacred thing,” Gittens said. But it wasn’t always the case. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned about “mob rule,” Gittens said.

While at first it was mainly property owners who voted, attitudes changed and states gradually started removing voting restrictions, Gittens said. By the late 1820s, “It’s wide open for everyone who is adult, white and male, and then the line stops,” she said.

The fight for voting rights for different groups continued from the 1860s onward. The 15th Amendment gave Black Americans the right to vote. But in practice, Black citizens continued to face obstacles ranging from violence to poll taxes and literacy tests meant to keep them from voting, Gittens said. Women got voting rights in 1920. Native Americans received full U.S. citizenship and the right to vote in 1924.

Gittens said the next big push for voting rights came during the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited voting practices that were used to discriminate against Black people.

However, Simon said recent decisions by the Supreme Court have weakened the U.S.’s power to stop voter discrimination.

Simon talked about the Supreme Court’s decisions in a couple of important cases. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act — specifically, the formula that helps determine whether certain jurisdictions can change their voting rules without getting clearance that the changes don’t discriminate against minorities. And last year, the Supreme Court ruled that two voting policies in Arizona — one that prohibits ballot collection and one that rejects ballots cast in the wrong precincts — did not violate the Voting Rights Act.

Simon said a bill in Congress, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would help restore parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act if it was passed. Another bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, includes provisions for early voting, mail ballots, same-day voter registration and more.

Kolnick and fellow panelist Tom Williford said changes in the country’s increasingly partisan political rhetoric could also affect American democracy and voting.

Kolnick said a great thing about the U.S. was the belief that a person could be loyal to the nation while disagreeing with the government.

“It used to be that we kind of understood you win some, you lose some,” Kolnick said. Now, he said, “This idea of legitimate opposition is at risk.”


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