As fundamental as the right to vote is to a democratic republic, free and open access to voting continues to be a contentious issue. From the earliest days of our nation’s history when only white male landowners could vote to recent history when the Voting Rights Act was intended to ensure that voter registration processes were open and fair, there have been expansions of the suffrage followed by efforts at retrenchment. While the Emancipation Proclamation may have freed the slaves, African Americans and other minorities have seen a steady stream of legislation and intimidation to keep them from voting.
When those in power are threatened at the ballot box, one response has been to try to redefine the electorate. When newly enfranchised slaves had the potential to upset the whites in power, various Jim Crow laws including poll taxes, literacy tests and other means were devised to keep African Americans from voting. These obstructions to African American voters continued until the 1970s in Virginia. Unfortunately, efforts to suppress the vote are not a matter of history; they continue today. Just as Democrats used voter suppression methods in the past, Republicans seeking to hang onto power in the red states are using them today. Under the guise of preventing voter fraud, a number of laws have been passed in recent years that do not eliminate the phantom fraud but instead add obstacles to voting procedures that hinder such groups as minorities who are not likely to vote for the party in power. No evidence has been produced to prove that fraud has been committed in voter registration or in casting ballots; the only fraud has been in the party in power counting the ballots to always be in their favor.
A series of bills have been introduced in Virginia in recent years to make voter registration easier and to make the act of voting more open and accessible. Most of these bills have been defeated. Bills, however, to complicate the voting process with personal identification requirements have succeeded. Major campaigns are needed to ensure that voters are educated and confident in going to the polls and voting. The real concern in Virginia need not be that people are voting fraudulently. The concern needs to be that too few people vote; Virginia has one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the nation.
Aside from the laws that needlessly complicate the voting process and suppress the vote, another clear concern is that political campaigning turns off so many people that they simply choose not to vote. After months of charges and counter-charges, endless television commercials, robo telephone calls and mailboxes full of slick fliers, some people simply throw up their hands and decide not to vote.
Overcoming voter suppression means that we work for better laws on registering and voting. It means also that we keep our families, friends and neighbors engaged in the process to survive the campaigns and vote.