History, History Column

The Right To Vote….

by ©2020 Sarah Becker

The Right To Vote….

“The question of suffrage is one which is likely to agitate the public so long as a portion of the citizens of the nation are excluded from its privileges,” President and former Union General Ulysses S. Grant [R-IL] said in 1870.  Amendment 15, Section 1, as ratified on March 30, 1870 gave black men the right to vote.   

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered,” incoming President Abraham Lincoln [R-IL] said on March 4, 1861.

“In legal contemplation the Union is perpetual, confirmed by the history of the Union itself,” Lincoln continued.  “[O]ne of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was ‘to form a more perfect Union.’”  Seven southern states had seceded as of February 23, 1861: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

“Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” Lincoln concluded.  “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of Civil War…[As I have said previously]—I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”

On March 21, 1861, Confederate States of America officeholder Alexander H. Stephens [Whig, Democrat and CSA-GA] responded.  “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition…With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law.  Not so with the negro.”

“We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart,” President Lincoln said on April 11, 1865 his last public address.  “The [Confederate] evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace…By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority—reconstruction—which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed more closely upon our attention.  It is fraught with great difficulty.”

“Unlike the case of a war between independent nationals, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with,” Lincoln continued.  “No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man.  We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements.  Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.”

“We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper relation with the Union,” Lincoln concluded, “and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation.”  He also mentioned “the elective franchise,” his want to confer it “on the colored man.”

On March 18, 2016, NAACP President Cornell Brooks sharply criticized voter identification laws, noting “the 2016 election is the first election in 50 years without the full protection of the 1965 Voting Rights Act [VRA].”  In 2013, in Shelby County, Alabama, Petitioner v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General, et.al., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled portions of the VRA unconstitutional.

The VRA enabled the Federal government to suspend all literacy, knowledge or character tests for voting in areas where less than 50 percent of the voting age population is registered.  “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote on June 25, 2013.

“Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting—a drastic departure from the basic principle of federalism,” Roberts continued.  “And Section 4 of the Act applied that requirement only to some States—an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty.  This was strong medicine, but Congress determined it was needed to address entrenched racial determination in voting, ‘an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.’”

In April 1865 the Federal government divided the South into five occupied military districts.  Freed black men were often homeless; without money and at loose ends in a society tainted by the hostilities of war.  Their wants: ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments; privileges and immunities, and independence through education.  Amendment 13 ratified December 6, 1865, abolished slavery.  Virginia’s Black Code, its Vagrant Act became law in January 1866.

“By constitutional amendment…[a] large portion of the population had become, instead of mere chattels, free men and citizens,” the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee on Reconstruction wrote in 1866.  “Slavery, by building up a ruling and dominant class, had produced a spirit of oligarchy adverse to republican institutions, which finally inaugurated Civil War.  The tendency of continuing the domination of such a class, by leaving it in the exclusive possession of political power, would be to encourage the same spirit, and lead to a similar result [Jim Crow and the Lost Cause].”  The Committee’s conclusion: “the right of [male] suffrage should be granted, without distinction of color or race.”

“Underlying Reconstruction lay principles important to modern civilized nations,” historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote.  “Civil rights, racial equality, federal powers.”

The Federal Congress passed its first Civil Rights Bill on April 6, 1866.  It granted full citizenship to all persons, except for Indians, born on United States soil.  Black men, for the first time, had the right to enforce contracts; to sue, give evidence, and buy property.

A reunited, Reconstruction Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875.  The Act was first introduced by U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, an 1870 Massachusetts Radical Republican. It provided that all persons, regardless of race, were entitled to “the full and equal employment” of accommodations, public transportation, and places of amusement.”

“You say you have emancipated us,” Frederick Douglass told the 1876 Republican National Convention. “But what is your emancipation?  What is your enfranchisement?  What does it all amount to, if the black man, after having been made free by the letter of your law, is unable to exercise that freedom, and, after having been freed from the slaveholder’s lash, he is to be subject to the slaveholder’s shotgun.”

“Ours is the most extraordinary case of any people ever emancipated on the globe,” Douglass concluded.  “When you turned us loose…you turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and, worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.”

Six ex-Confederate soldiers formed the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, on December 24, 1865—for “amusement.”  Founding member Frank O. McCord was “elected first Grand Cyclops.”  Founding member James E. Crowe was “chosen first Grand Turk.”  The Klan’s Invisible Empire of the South was established in 1869.  The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870 permitted Congress to deal forcibly with those whites determined to defy the 15th Amendment.  The Virginia KKK, Alexandria’s robed Klavern #47 thrived—until 1930.

Voter suppression: the authority of a State to determine the mode and manner by which its citizens may cast their ballots; to discriminate on account of gender, race or color.  Women received the right to vote only 100 years ago, on August 26, 1920.

“Discouragement is the most powerful voter suppression tool in America today,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said in 2016.

“The Shelby County decision was dubious when it first was issued and it looks even worse today,” the Brennan Center for Justice decided. “John Roberts court…invited Congress to fix what the court had said was broken in the law…but they had no way of knowing in June 2013 that Donald Trump would within three years become a Republican nominee for President and that voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of minority voters would become a pillar of his campaign.”

“In the Court’s view, the very success of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 demands its dormancy,” former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote, dissenting.  “Congress was of another mind.  Recognizing that large progress has been made, Congress determined…that the scourge of discrimination was not yet extirpated.”

“The question this case presents is who decides whether, as currently operative, Section 5 remains justifiable…this Court, or a Congress charged [Amendment 15, Section 2] with the obligation to enforce the post-Civil War Amendments ‘by appropriate legislation,’” Ginsberg penned.  “Particularly effective is the VRA’s requirement of federal preclearance for all changes to voting laws in the regions of the country with the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights.”  In the six years following the 2013 Shelby ruling, “13 states slashed nearly 1,700 polling places.”  Texas limited “its drop off box locations” effective October 2020.

As of July 6, 2017 Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, 20 states in total denied Republican President Donald Trump’s White House Commission on Election Integrity’s request for state generated voter registration information.  In most cases the Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the federal government from recording citizens’ party affiliations.  Several state laws forbid the release of partial social security numbers and birth dates.

November 3 is Election Day and for the last several months President Trump has challenged the efficacy, the reliability if not the legitimacy of mail-in ballots.  A devotee of Florida’s mail-in ballot, Trump now claims that mail-in voting is “substantially fraudulent.”  FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress on September 17 that “while there is little evidence for mail-in voter fraud, there is hard evidence that Russia is meddling….”

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s much anticipated anti-gerrymandering Amendment is on this month’s ballot.  “Should the Constitution of Virginia be amended to establish a redistricting commission, consisting of eight members of the General Assembly and eight citizens of the Commonwealth that is responsible for drawing the congressional and state legislative districts that will be subsequently voted on….”  The Amendment has the support of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; the electorate’s decision is expected soon.  As are the 2020 Census results.

Candidate Joe Biden’s “greatest concern: this President is trying to steal this election.”  President Trump advocates “double voting” absentee and in-person.  “The election is rigged,” Trump told a Carson City crowd.  “It’s the only way we are going to lose.”

Washington State federal Judge Stanley Bastian recently “halted cost-cutting changes to the Postal Service.”  He found “that the state attorneys general proved ‘that the United States Postal Service and the Postmaster General violated and infringed on the States’ constitutional authority to regulate elections and the people’s right to vote.”

Meanwhile Florida’s Republican legislators struggle.  On October 18, 2019 a federal judge ruled “that Florida [a 2020 battleground state] cannot deny the right to vote to felons who have served their sentences but are ‘genuinely unable’ to pay ‘legal financial obligations…restitutions.’”  Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has now “called for an investigation into Mike Bloomberg’s work to pay off [qualified felons] fines and fees…to [successfully] pay off [the seeming equivalent of a race-based] ‘poll tax.’”

The Constitution, Amendment 24 as ratified January 23, 1964, Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”

Kindly stated the September 29 presidential debate fell short.  The President “played down” the pandemic then soon after tested positive for COVID-19.  In truth neither candidate has wholly explained their economic recovery strategy.

How you vote is yours to decide.  Vote!  Wait for the results, then enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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