Possibly one of the most important fights of this new century is being waged in the halls of Congress, in state houses across the nation and, with lesser significance, on social media. The question is about voter accessibility and who has the right to determine it.
Because of COVID-19, voter accessibility was expanded and quite possibility contributed to Joe Biden’s victory. Democrats who benefited from COVID rules want to make those changes permanent on the federal level, while Republicans who suffered want to return to traditional rules through state governments.
President Biden weighed in recently, calling Republican attempts a return to Jim Crow.
It is worth taking a look at Jim Crow voting practices, but historically speaking, what seems ironic is during Jim Crow it was Democrats who tried to keep Black Americans from voting booths while today Republicans are trying to force them to have to use them.
First things first. What does the Constitution say about voting practices?
According to Article I, Section 4, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.” In other words, voting laws are made state by state.
The federal government has passed amendments dealing with who can vote, but not how. Even then, the Constitution does not say voting is a right, only that you cannot deny voting based on race, sex or age. The Constitution does not prohibit states from blocking voters for different reasons.
Because states can decide who votes, they also can decide who does not as long as the reason is not illegal. So, for Jim Crow, the 14th Amendment said you could not deny anyone the right to vote based on their race, skin color or condition of previous servitude, which means they used to be a slave.
What southern states did in response was establish poll taxes or education tests as requirements for voting. Since most Black Americans at the time were poor and uneducated, this legally stopped the vast majority of Blacks from casting a ballot. To be legal, states that wanted to stop Blacks from voting also had to stop poor and uneducated white Americans from voting.
With this in mind, are new proposed voting laws in Republican states the same as Jim Crow laws?
It seems like at the heart of all the laws are two things: Mail-in voting and voter IDs.
Democrats are arguing that Republicans are trying to restrict voters, by making them show up in person. This assertion is that it is harder for the poor to make it to voting stations and afford IDs, while Republicans claim voting is the only official activity allowed without an ID.
Is it like Jim Crow? Yes and no.
Republicans are not trying to pass new laws per se. They are trying to retain the laws from before COVID. It actually is Democrats trying to change or keep new election laws. But yes, it is true, these laws will limit participation.
However, the laws are really just a screen for the real issue that needs to be addressed. Should all people be allowed to vote? Our instinct in a democracy is to say yes, but we also get the question confused with should all people have the opportunity to vote? Those are different questions.
The Founding Fathers did not find the question difficult. They believed all people should have the opportunity to vote but that did not mean that all people should be able to. The Founders limited voting to men who had a stake in society. This was shown by owning property or controlling their own means of survival.
No person who wants to vote should be denied the privilege to do so.
But Thomas Paine once said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
Voting should not be easy. It should be important. As a bare minimum, voters should show up.
As for Jim Crow, there are some similarities, but there are those who risked their lives in the 1950s and 1960s for the opportunity to vote in person. Let’s be careful not to compare them to those who want to be able to sit at home and mail in their ballot instead of having wait in line.