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Who Can Vote In The U.S? The Answer Has Changed A Lot Throughout History

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who has a say in American democracy? The answer has changed many times since this country's founding. People of all races and genders can now vote. But over time, barriers have been put in their way. Here are the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: On February 26, 1870, just a few years after the Civil War had ended, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, granting all Black men the right to vote. It was a moment of hope, of progress. But it was soon met with intense resistance, especially in the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting, unintelligible).

DAVID BLIGHT: This counterrevolution by the white South was wrecked upon Black America. It was wrecked upon free people.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: This is David Blight, author of "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom."

BLIGHT: The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and many other imitators who will wage a informal, largely vigilante terror war against Black politics and the Black right to vote using intimidation and using virulent, you know, white supremacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I remember my mother taking us to the back of the house and pulling down the blinds and closing the curtains because the Klan was marching.

BLIGHT: And by and large, it succeeded by the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of that era we tend to call the Jim Crow era.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The Jim Crow era would last almost a hundred years and would be defined by the violent, systematic oppression of Black Americans across the South.

BLIGHT: Some of the most pernicious forms of voter suppression - I mean, blatant discriminations - poll taxes, you know, literacy tests. And there were all kinds of weird machinations that the Southern states went to to prevent Blacks from voting.

CAROL ANDERSON: By the time the U.S. is getting ready to fight Nazis, only 3% of African American adults were registered to vote in the South.

ARABLOUEI: This is Carol Anderson, author of "One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy."

ANDERSON: And the federal government, even if it wanted to, didn't quite have the mechanism to intervene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Warnings of arrest, threats of jail terms and violence all failed to put out what burns in the hearts and minds of the youngsters.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B JOHNSON: The command of the Constitution is plain. It is wrong - deadly wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.

(APPLAUSE)

ABDELFATAH: On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed the discriminatory voting practices of the Jim Crow era. This was a big deal. The federal government was finally taking a firm stance against voter suppression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We'll hear argument first this morning in case 12-96, Shelby County v. Holder. Mr. Rein...

ARABLOUEI: Fast-forward to 2013. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, decided that crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts explained the court's decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: I think what we're talking about here is that Congress looks and says, well, we did solve that problem, as everyone agrees. It's been very effective. Section 5 has...

ANDERSON: Roberts ruled that racism wasn't like it was back in the '60s. I mean, I - we have overcome.

ARABLOUEI: Of course, racial discrimination is still a grim reality of voting in America. And Shelby v. Holder only made things worse.

BLIGHT: Voter ID laws have been passed in so many states, you can't count them now. I mean, all these methods the Republicans are using in many, many states - reducing hours of voting, reducing days of early voting, reducing numbers of polls, fighting now over mail-in ballots.

ANDERSON: I mean, we like to treat this kind of disenfranchisement as some kind of relic of the past. No. In the 2018 election, I voted early so that I could drive folk to and from the polls because here in Georgia, they had shut down over 200 polling places and the majority of those in minority and poor communities.

And one of the women that I drove - she was, like, 90. And we go to the polls. And they're, like, how are you doing, Ms. - you know, and they name her - call her name. And she's like, I'm fine. They're, like, we got to see your ID. And she's trying to get, with these 90-year-old fingers, this ID out of her wallet when they know her.

She's able to get it out, and she votes. And we get back in the car. And she's like, mm hmm. I remember when I had to read something when I first tried to vote here in Georgia. And they were asking me all these questions - literacy tests.

And so this woman who had to come through Georgia's literacy tests is now having to deal with Georgia's voter ID laws with a powerful civil rights movement and a Voting Rights Act in between those two moments. We live on the plane of aspiration of what this nation could be, but we're also so aware of how fragile, how tenuous progress is. And that's why we fight.

INSKEEP: A history of barriers to voting from Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei of NPR's history podcast Throughline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.