On Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at the Leelanau County Administrative Center in Suttons Bay, the Leelanau League of Women Voters held a forum that reviewed the history of the struggle for voting rights in America, and the constitutional amendments that led to the laws that guarantee voting rights today. This was a wonderful opportunity to refresh our memories of the historic battles fought to achieve the right to vote for all Americans.
Brief Outline of the Proceedings:
Honoring Those Who Protect Our Vote
Why Do We Vote?
Our Fight to Vote - Historical Voter Suppression 1870 – 1960
Our Fight to Vote – Voting Rights Act of 1965
Our Fight to Vote – Voter Suppression 1996 – 2017
Stand Up to Protect the Vote
The forum began by asking who is registered to vote? Everyone stood up. They asked to remain standing if you have helped register others to vote. Two people remained standing when asked who had registered more than 25 people. Asked if anyone had ever had trouble voting, one woman explained that she had to drive half an hour to her old voting precinct after trying to complete the process where she currently lived because her new registration not being properly transferred. It was stressed that our right to vote is preservative of all other rights.
Three “Reconstruction” Amendments concerning the right to vote were reviewed:
13th Amendment of 1865 - Abolished slavery, and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Granted citizenship to former slaves.
14th Amendment of 1868 - Defined citizenship, contains the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and deals with post Civil War issues. This is the most litigated amendment.
15th Amendment of 1870 - Prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude.
In 1920, women received the right to vote after a fierce campaign. The “Silent Sentinels” had stood by the White House gates continuously from 1913 - 1915. Over 5,000 women participated and many were arrested. Women who participated in hunger strikes, were force fed. Alice Paul, the founder of the League of Women Voters, was one who was imprisoned and force fed.
In 1924, Native Americans were given the right to vote.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed The Voting Rights Act. Seventy-four cases have made it to the Supreme Court litigating this Act.
In 1971, the age for voting was lowered to 18 by the 26th amendment. Viet Nam veterans demanded that if they could die for their country, they should be able to vote.
III. The Fight to Vote – Voter Suppression 1870 – 1960
Means to Control Who Gets to Vote:
Voter Registration – originated in the cities but soon was all over the country.
Secret Ballot – was originally called the Australian Ballot in general usage by the mid 1890’s.
Literacy Tests – These were made impossibly difficult in many areas.
Poll Taxes – People had to pay to vote – This disenfranchised the poor
Felons Denied the Vote – In Michigan, you can vote if you have served your sentence.
"Undesirable groups" discouraged from voting. In NY City, there were only two days each year to register, one being on Yom Kippur, a Jewish religious holiday.
IV. The Fight to Vote - Voting Rights Act of 1965
Until 1965, it was almost impossible to register to vote if you were Black. There were impossible tests. In southern states an injunction prohibited more than 3 persons meeting for voter registration. Many who attempted to vote were arrested and sent to Parchment State Prison. After a two-year effort, the Black churches in Selma, Alabama, decided to march to Montgomery, the capital, and demand the right to register to vote. The Edmund Pettis Bridge, named after a confederate general and Klansman, had to be crossed from Selma into Montgomery. Three separate marches occurred: Bloody Sunday, March 7th, where marchers were assaulted and jailed. March 9th, where marchers were turned back at the bridge by law enforcement officers, and again on March 21st, where the marchers marched under the protection of the federal government and were successful in crossing the bridge into Montgomery, Alabama.
Judy Karandjeff, LWV Michigan President, who was present on the forum, marched in the third march on March 21st. She was a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She and 4 others were asked to go to represent the university. There were 2 undergrads, 2 theology students and one professor. They drove through the night and had to hide the African American professor on the car floor when they stopped for gas and food in Mississippi. Ms. Karandjeff spoke in a matter of fact manner about the “kind of hatred” they encountered. Even 52 years later, the trauma of having experienced the hatred displayed by the people of Montgomery, their children, dogs and guns along the way, was evident in Ms. Karandjeff’s voice and demeanor.
Meanwhile, here in Michigan, Governor George Romney led 10,000 marchers in Detroit to protest what was happening to the marchers in Selma.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Ms. Karandjeff said it would never have happened without the relationship that formed between President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. Michigan had 2 townships that were covered by the VRA, Clyde Twp. in Allegan County, and Buena Vista TWP in Saginaw County.
V. The Fight to Vote – Voter Suppression 1996 – 2017
We now have 34 states that require photo ID to vote. Partisan gerrymandering of voting districts has wasted many votes. Reduction of early voting days has made it harder for people to get to the polls. Seventeen states had more restrictions in 2016 than in 2012. Often 40% or more of registered voters do not vote.
In 2013, “Shelby County Vs. Holder” struck down much of the enforcement abilities of the VRA which has enabled disenfranchise groups of voters.
President Trump, alleging widespread voter fraud, has appointed a commission to investigate,which is now itself, under investigation. There are no written findings from this commission. The National LWV is monitoring this commission, ready to announce an Action Alert if it is determined that the commission acts to further suppress voting.
VI. Stand Up to Protect the Vote
Michigan Election Laws:
Michigan is a local control state. We have 4,800 precincts in Michigan. We have 83 county clerks, 280 city clerks, 1240 township clerks and 256 village clerks. That makes a lot variation in application of the rules and procedures for voting. About 26% of the votes were absentee in 2014. Michigan is known for long ballots and long waiting times. We do have a computerized system but the number of computers are limited. In order to vote in Michigan, you must:
Reside in Michigan 30 days before registering
Register to vote no later than 30 days prior to an election
Re-register if you move within the state
Show photo ID or sign affidavit before voting
Get absentee ballot if you meet criteria
Sign form affirming that you are a citizen
Vote in person the first time, if you registered by mail and not with local county clerk or Secretary of State
Straight-ticket voting is prohibited
Have address on driver’s license and registration that match
Able to vote if ex-felon
You can use a provisional ballot and prove where you live later.
Recent Voting Participation:
In 2012, 58.6% of registered voters voted nationally and 65.4% in Michigan
In 2014, 36.7% voted nationally and 43.2% in Michigan
In 2016, 60.2% voted nationally and 65.7% in Michigan.
These low rates may be the result of perceived lack of competition, meaningful choices, difficulty in registration and getting to the polls.
League of Women Voters Goals:
Short Term –Increase Online Voter Registration Inc
Mid-Term – Expand Early Voting
Long Term – Add a Voting Bill of Rights to the Michigan Constitution
The biggest take-away I had from this forum is two pronged. First, Judy Karandjeff’s experience at the Selma march made that period of recent American history come alive. Second, she emphasized that legislators never give people anything without their demanding it. You have to go to the streets to make changes. Legislators protect the status quo and only move when they are forced to. We may find ourselves back in the streets again in order to prevent voter suppression and protect our right to vote.