How Voter Suppression Impacts Black Students

The history of voter suppression has had an enduring impact on the Black community. Learn how it impacts Black students and why Black voter participation is important.
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  • The right to vote is a sacred and highly contested civil liberty.
  • The Black community has faced historic barriers to voting.
  • Examples of voter suppression include restrictive voter ID laws, harassment, and inaccessible voting locations.

The right to vote in the United States is both a sacred and highly contested civil liberty.

Historically, voter suppression laws and policies have negatively impacted under-resourced communities, including low-income people of color.

Voter participation is a key avenue for enacting policies that will positively influence the livelihood, educational attainment, and socioeconomic status of Black students. Voting is especially important for Black students given the educational, income, and wealth disparities between Black and white communities and the significant burden of student loan debt for Black students.

Gaining the Right to Vote

For Black Americans gaining the right to vote was central to becoming a full citizen, but it came with much strife and systemic discrimination. In 1865, most Southern state legislatures created and enforced restrictive and discriminatory policies known as Black codes. Black codes were designed to keep Black people subjugated as free and cheap labor and to curtail the Black vote.

Intense opposition to Black codes paved the way for the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which required all states to uphold the 14th Amendment. This act allowed men of all races to vote, but Black women still did not receive the right to vote until much later. Reconstruction ended in 1877, and without this protection, it paved the way for more Southern states to enact discriminatory voter laws.

States devised policies that disenfranchised Black male voters (and later, Black women voters as well) such as the grandfather clause and literacy tests. The grandfather clause said a man could only vote if his ancestor had been a voter before 1867 but because the ancestors of Black men were enslaved this made them constitutionally ineligible to vote. Literacy tests were given as a litmus test for voting and Black men were given harder tests to read than white men.

"Throughout history, voter suppression tactics were employed to make it harder for certain people to vote so that those in power could maintain their control. Today is no different except that legislators are more creative in justifying intentions.

"Black voters have proven to be the decisive votes in key states and races, particularly in the South. When you combine that with party affiliation trends, population shifts, and the country's changing demographics, it's no surprise why some elected officials have resorted to writing laws to help them win elections."

— Domonique James, political strategist and founder of Politics with Purpose

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The fight for African Americans' right to vote dates back to the 1800s and Black people especially have a contentious history with voter suppression laws. The Black vote has and will always be a pervasive threat to white supremacy which is why there are continued efforts today to curb and suppress it.

What Is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black civil rights activists became committed to advancing civil liberties for Black Americans, including voting rights. The civil rights movement was a pivotal period for advancing Black liberation, and Black activists used non-violent forms of protests like boycotts and sit-ins to contest systemic racial discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public spaces and banned employment discrimination on the bases of race, color, sex, or national origin. However, it did not address the continued discrimination and disenfranchisement of Black voters.

The historic Selma marches were held in 1965 to protest the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote. A violent confrontation erupted between protestors and law enforcement, and many protestors were injured during this historic protest.

This march garnered the attention of President Lyndon Johnson who signed into law the Voting Rights Act on August 6th, 1965. The act banned the use of literacy tests and instituted federal oversight over voter registration in areas that had a demonstrated history of discriminating against Black voters.

How Voter Suppression Impacts Black Students Today

Voter suppression is not a thing of the past and it is still very much pervasive today.

Voter suppression can occur in numerous ways, and studies show that Black people are more likely to experience inaccessible polling booths and harassment at the polls. They are also more likely to be negatively impacted by changes to voter identification laws.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law issued a report that concluded that 19 states approved new restrictions on voting in 2021.

One such law was Texas' S.B.1, which limits election workers' ability to stop harassment by poll watchers. This law disproportionately impacted people of color who face a higher chance of harassment at the voting booths. It also banned 24-hour and drive-through voting, limiting the availability of voting and disproportionately impacting people who have less flexibility to take time off work to vote.

Millennials and Gen Z represent a large share of eligible voters but also face unique barriers to casting their votes such as stringent proof of residence requirements and a crackdown on campus pop-up polling booths.

Domonique James, political strategist and founder of Politics with Purpose says, "I'm very concerned that voter suppression laws could disenfranchise college students at the beginning of their civic engagement journey."

She went on to say, "The voter restriction laws instill fear and complicate the process for all voters, especially students... New voting laws put students in a vulnerable place. Should they vote absentee, they're at the mercy of new and conflicting ID restrictions, potential data errors, and even mail delays. I think the additional barriers can have unintended consequences like making some states and local races unexpectedly competitive."

For Black students attending colleges in more remote and rural areas, they may face increased harassment when visiting their polling location and/or may find booths inaccessible. Issues and concerns about voting are often compounded for Black student voters as they face challenges in casting their ballot related to their status as a student and related to their identity as Black.

Black students continue to experience incidences of racism, police brutality, and campus violence. In addition, the income and wealth gap between Black and white students continues to widen, and the increasing student debt crisis continues to have long lasting impacts on Black students. Cumulatively, all of these issues matter for Black students at the polls.

Why Voting Is Important for Black Students

Voter turnout among college college students has increased overall, and the American electorate has become younger and more diverse. In the 2020 presidential election, 52-55% of voting-eligible people aged 18-29 cast a vote.

With the Black vote playing a critical role in the American electorate, voter suppression only serves to curb their ability to cast their ballot. Given the sacrifices made by historic Black activists to secure voting rights for Black people and communities of color, casting a vote in the Black community takes on renewed significance.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Domonique James

Domonique James

Domonique James is an award-winning political and communications strategist. Her agency, Politics with Purpose, transforms everyday experts — the leaders with lived experience and local or issue expertise — into the influencers who drive change in the media, politics, advocacy, and philanthropy.

Her political career began as an organizer on President Obama's campaign, ultimately serving as deputy White House liaison to the Environmental Protection Agency. She's also worked for Audience Partners (now A4 Media), Girls Who Code, and First Data Corporation. Domonique has been named a 40 Under 40 leader by PR Week and the American Association of Political Consultants for her impact. In addition, she is the political and public affairs advisor to Buzzfeed and a national trainer with the National Democratic Training Committee. She's a graduate of The Campaign School at Yale and Spelman College.

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