chapter  5
30 Pages

Voting Rights and Restrictions

The election of President Barack Obama and the numerous political achievements by other people of color is the result of centuries of human effort in the face of pure terrorism.1 Voting is power. Proponents of second-class citizenship for Blacks have crafted a myriad of obstacles intended to prevent full exercise of this power. Blacks and Latinos have lost their lives, families, livelihoods, and homes in their quest for the vote. This chapter examines the journey of Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans from political disfranchisement to voting rights. In 1670, the Virginia colony restricted the privilege of voting to landholders.2 By 1705, Blacks in Virginia were prohibited from holding political office.3 Free Blacks paid taxes but most were prohibited from voting and those free Blacks who could vote did so wholly upon the whim of White state legislators. For example, in 1723 Virginia enacted a statute prohibiting free Black landholders

from voting in any elections. Of course, enslaved Blacks, as nonpersons, were precluded from voting; however, the Delaware legislature passed a statute that prohibited Blacks from even being present when voting was in progress.4 Once the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, Southern politicians found they needed Black bodies to gain power in the U.S. Congress. Counting Blacks as three-fifths of a person, instead of discounting them completely, allowed the South to gain additional seats in the House of Representatives. In 1831, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans were part of a “domestic dependent nation” and thus each state could decide their level of suffrage or exclude them from voting. In Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Supreme Court decided that Blacks were never meant to be a part of the political community.5 As slavery was in its death throes, the issue of Black suffrage was hotly contested in Congress and within state legislatures. The Civil War, while at its core a political and economic conflict between White men in the North and the South, also demonstrated the power of armed Blacks. The North, embracing the Industrial Revolution and its factories, could turn against slave farm labor. But, to gain a primary political as well as economic position over the South, it needed the Black vote. Heretofore, counting Blacks as three-fifths of a person only served to benefit Southern politicians. The defeat of the Confederate Army set the stage for Black political participation, albeit reluctantly given. Native Americans were deemed members of tribal nations and precluded from U.S. citizenship and voting.