By: Paulina Mangubat
August 6, 1965 - President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law
On Monday, The New York Times published a report indicating that only 9 percent of all Americans, or 14 percent of adults eligible to vote, voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton during their respective parties’ primary elections.
If you’ve been groomed to faithfully believe in the American democratic process, this might come as a bit of a surprise to you. You might think: if Americans just get out the vote, shouldn’t the voting system self-correct and become representative of the will of the people?
But America’s problem with low voter turnout isn’t just an issue of physically getting to the ballot box. As it turns out, the exclusionary sentiments of legislation designed to constrict voting rights may have crystallized over time, causing millions of Americans to forgo the ballot box every election season.
It’s common knowledge that for much of U.S. election history, black people, women, non-property owners, slaves, immigrants, and other minorities were prevented from voting. Although the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, theoretically prohibited federal and state governments from denying a citizen’s right to vote on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” such discrimination continued well into the 20th century. Black Americans living in the South were particularly impacted by this brand of (nominally illegal) prejudice.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. Now widely described as a landmark piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in voting. In doing so, the act enforced the voting rights that had previously been outlined in the Fifteenth Amendment.
To combat state-specific prejudices, the Voting Rights Act allowed the federal government to oversee elections administration. Southern states that had previously utilized complicated mechanisms, surprise quizzes and other methods to limit voting weren’t entirely pleased with this development.
Although the passage of the Voting Rights Act was indubitably a step towards equality, other challenges have persisted. What, for example, can be done about voters who cannot speak English fluently? Or voters whose educations did not include civics lessons about politics and democracy?
What can be done about voters who feel that their voice genuinely does not matter?
The fight for universal voting rights in the United States has yet to be won. Just this Tuesday, the Times ran an op-ed by Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, detailing the restrictive voting laws still in place today. Hasen’s analysis lauded the recent wave of court rulings intended to give more eligible voters the chance to vote, regardless of their race or class, as a definite victory. Still, while Hasen wasn’t entirely pessimistic, he took a measured approach to the issue of voting restrictions: in his own words, “the struggle is not over.”
As Americans head to the polls this November, it’s important to recognize that our choice of president (and, in turn, our president’s choice of cabinet members, judges and justices) will inevitably shape the American political landscape for decades to come.
So much has been done to protect the right to vote for millions of Americans. Those who can cast their ballots readily shouldn’t shirk that responsibility. But, more importantly, they shouldn’t forget those who have been and continue to be disenfranchised.
Paulina Mangubat is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She is a communications intern at the EastWest Institute.