Voter Expansion & Voter Suppression
“Undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in Reynolds v. Sims (1964). Voting is not only essential for citizenship but also for maintaining a representative democracy in the United States.
- Voter Expansion: Since its founding, the United States has placed barriers to voting based on economics, gender, and race, which have effectively disenfranchised citizens, and thus undermined democracy in America. Efforts to expand suffrage and eliminate these barriers have been successful, including eliminating property requirements, ratification of the 15th Amendment (race discrimination), 19th Amendment (gender discrimination), 24th Amendment (poll taxes – economic discrimination), and 26th Amendment (lowering the voting age to 18), as well as passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- Voter Suppression: In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court declared a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 regarding federal oversight of voting districts to be unconstitutional. Voter suppression has continued through strict voter ID requirements, shortened voting times, purged voter registration rolls, restricted registration, as well as through deceptive election practices and voter intimidation. These measures have disproportionately impacted communities of color, elderly, unemployed, or impoverished individuals, and those with disabilities.
The election process is vital to making sure that every vote counts in a representative democracy. In the United States, the Constitution left the responsibility of overseeing voting in federal as well as state elections to the states. Thus, voters are subject to their state’s restrictions and rules on voting, and states collect and count voters’ ballots and certify election results.
- One person, one vote: the rule that a person’s voting power should be equal to that of another person in the same state. States’ voting laws and redistricting must ensure that each legislative district has equal populations and equal representation for all citizens in the State, under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Furthermore, redistricting must avoid “gerrymandering,” in which electoral districts are created that favor one class or political party.
- Electoral College: voters do not directly elect a President/Vice President by popular vote. Established in Article II, Sec. 1 of the Constitution, amended by the 12th & 23rd Amendments, the Electoral College is a body of 538 electors, with 270 electoral votes needed to elect. Each state has as many electors as it has members of Congress in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The District of Columbia has 3 electors. Each state determines how the electors should vote, most use “winner-take-all,” reflecting the popular vote in the state, but Maine and Nebraska use the “congressional district method,” allocating two electoral votes to the popular vote in the state and one electoral to the popular vote in each Congressional district. Calls to get rid of the electoral college as undemocratic and discriminatory have increased, in particular in the wake of the 2000 and 2016 Presidential elections when the winner of the election received more electoral votes but less popular votes.
New York State Focus
From the Annenberg Classroom. This video discusses voting as an essential, fundamental right of citizenship, the history of exclusion of women from voting in the United States, and the steps that led to the 19th Amendment and the fight for equal rights. Here is a brief timeline and a lesson plan to accompany this video, as well as a list of primary sources to incorporate into lessons or to help create new ones.
From Vox, an online news outlet, founded in 2014, with “the mission to explain the news,” this short video provides an explanation of the history of the electoral college in the United States, how it functions, and its role in elections.
From the Annenberg Classroom. This video describes the principle of one person, one vote under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, that each person’s voting power is equal and reflected in equal representation within a state, and examines two landmark Supreme Court decisions, Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964). Here is a lesson plan to accompany this video.