For the ninety-five years between the 15th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it seemed reasonable and right to many Americans to enact “poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic obstacles” (ourdocuments.gov) to prevent Black, Native and other races from voting.
That seems worth weighing at present. Since January this year, forty-eight states have introduced 389 legal obstacles and restrictions to voting. At present, some Americans think these are reasonable and right. They say it will “restore confidence” in elections. This presupposes there must be evidence about election fraud, not mere intuition or fear of it.
The evidence suggests otherwise. Consider the database that the Heritage Foundation claims has 1,100 circumstances of fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice analyzed the Heritage Foundation’s evidence and found that only 105 cases were related to the 2020 election. Another 488 were within the past ten years. The remainder - about half- are from the 1980’s and 1990’s, though some go back as far as 1948. WIth hundreds of millions of ballots cast in each election, election fraud and impersonation is astonishingly rare. What’s common is voter suppression.
The history of gender, race, ethnic, and political suppression became crystal clear after the passage of the 15th Amendment. In 1877, over 600,000 Black Americans had registered to vote, but intimidation, violence, and suppression reduced the numbers to mere thousands by 1930. According to the US Commission for Civil Rights, Black voter registration rates in Mississippi had been suppressed to 6.7 percent of Black Americans by the 1960s, After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it bloomed to 59.8 percent. As the US strengthened the act in 1970, 1975, and 1982, the gap in Mississippi, which boasts a forty percent Black population, was a mere 6.8 percent difference. In 2012, ninety percent of its Black population was registered compared to eighty-two percent of its White population.
It took activism- the risk and commitment of thousands in 1964, to return protections and freedoms to vote. On August 28, 2021, Americans will again march in cities all across the country, reminding fellow citizens and politicians that an “intuition” is not evidence. Voter suppression has an evidence-grounded history while voting fraud has widely dissipated since the early 1800’s.
The trouble is not the facts. It’s how we reason and feel in response to them. Humans inhabit a tension of feeling and reason. Feelings help us fit into a social community, and reason, which helps us check our emotions and social pressures rationality. Eyal Winter, Professor of Industrial/Behavioral Economics, notes that we need both our emotions and reason to be human. We are relational, interdependent beings, but peer pressure and emotions can trick us. We may not embrace the “parental” voice of reason which keeps us grounded. He notes we’d all be annoying and possibly given to the pointlessness of life if we were all reason and fact. We’d be isolated and alone in our “rightness.” But without facts and reason, we cannot move forward into changing reality of the US. We are an increasingly interracial and diverse country. If we are to become united in our states, we need to adjust to the facts, rather than reacting from our guts. Just because we have an affinity for one side or another doesn’t mean that side was persecuted or robbed. We inhabit the tension that our emotional reaction is part of adjusting to facts and reason. As Winter notes, “Studies show that people who can evoke a certain degree of anger and insult during bargaining and debate do better than measured people.” Thinking we are being rational and refusing the challenges of this present reality breaks our connection to others. We are wisest and healthiest when we flex, rather than staying brittle.
Change begins in our small towns, churches, community groups, and interpersonal discussions. In a democracy, where the government is by the people and for the people, we will have to take this to politicians. If letters, postcards, calls, and meetings don’t work, we will take to the streets, calling for legislation like SB.1 For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. As Ezra Levin of Indivisible writes, “We have to balance being angry but not cynical; disappointed but not hopeless; frustrated but not powerless....Politicians move when pushed, and it’s our job to push them.”