What’s the Big Deal About Elections?
written by Ruby Shamir
illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Today is the 59th anniversary of the ratification of the Twenty-Third Amendment. It allows citizens of Washington DC to vote for president and vice president. Three years later, in the first presidential election after ratification, the people voted for Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. The election was significant maybe not so much for itself, but certainly for what followed.
While he did not legally need to (as soon as 3/4 of the states ratify an Amendment it is certified and recorded making it part of the Constitution), one of Johnson’s first acts in his own full term as president was to sign, as a witness, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.
Until January 23, 1964, when the Twenty-Fourth Amendment was ratified making a poll tax illegal, many Southern states and some other states, too, required it. The poll tax was a registration requirement in those states. Everyone paid it. Because of the poll tax, people who did not earn enough money to be responsible for income or property taxes were still able to help fund the federal government. It was in actuality, an effective way to suppress the vote of poor citizens, mostly Black and Brown people, but poor whites, too. If you did not pay the poll tax, you did not vote. The poll tax became illegal in 1964, with the ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, but voter suppression was alive and well.
Even though the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) declared “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote … not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” (but not gender) the facts proved a different picture. It was not uncommon for some Southern states to require literacy tests, even until 1965. While the questions were (mostly) legitimate, answers were often obscure. Sometimes potential voters were asked to write portions of the Constitution from dictation. Spelling counted. For an interesting discussion on literacy tests see https://www.crmvet.org/info/lithome.htm
For a moving and entertaining first-person account try https://themoth.org/story-transcripts/voting-day-transcript
In 1965, there were 15,000 black citizens of voting age in Selma, Alabama. Only 335 were registered to vote. On March 7, 1965, six hundred or so peaceful civil rights marchers began to walk their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital. In Selma, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, police used night sticks, tear gas, and whips to stop the march. “The marchers were protesting the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper. They were protesting the lack of voting rights for Black people in America. They were protesting the lack of freedom for Black people in these United States of America. They were marching to Montgomery in search of freedom.” https://www.wave3.com/2020/06/30/column-rename-edmund-pettus-bridge-bridge-freedom/ The day became known as Bloody Sunday.
A week later, March 16, 1965, President Johnson listed for Congress the many devious ways voter suppression was taking place. A week and a half after that, March 25, the marchers reached Montgomery. They were led by Martin Luther King, Jr. John Lewis was there, too, causing “good trouble.”
Less than six months later on August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists were present for the signing. Here’s a picture: https://www.nps.gov/articles/votingrightsact.htm
A legislative masterpiece, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, banned all discriminatory voting practices. According to history.com, <https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/voting-rights-act> the Voting Rights Act is considered one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in United States.
But voter suppression is alive and well in 2020. According to the Carnegie Corporation, for a variety of reasons it has become harder to register and even to vote. https://www.carnegie.org/topics/topic-articles/voting-rights/11-barriers-voting/
So what has changed since 1964 when the poll tax was abolished, really? Black people are still targets of police violence, many times resulting in death. This is not a problem for “law and order” to solve.
Black and Brown people are still living in poverty at many times the rate of the white population. This complicated problem can only be solved when government agencies work with non-profit organizations and regular people to recognize the disparities and address each one.
Racism is a 400-year-old problem that can not be legislated away. We need to recognize each other’s strengths and build on them, to lift up everyone.
Bob Dylan’s 1963 lyrics sound like a breathless hope. I wonder if his vision is still possible? https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bobdylan/thetimestheyareachangin.html
John Lennon’s “Imagine” https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnlennon/imagine.html tempts us all with a blissful future of living together peacefully. I hope it’s not too late.
-—stay curious! (and patient)