Voting Rights Panel

Election Looming, Panel Bemoans Crippled Voting Rights Act

By David Stevens

On Thursday, a panel of academics and activists met to discuss the history of the franchise in the United States and its current state, focusing on the period from the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to today. Their discussion was particularly notable in the context of the looming election and the recent Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which struck down as unconstitutional section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act. This provision required certain states and local governments — those with a history of disenfranchising minorities — to obtain federal preclearance for any changes in their voting laws.


Professor of history David Blight, the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition, kicked off the event. The panel included: Ari Berman, journalist for The Nation and author of the new book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America; Isela Gutierrez, an activist with Democracy North Carolina who focuses on voter engagement, prison reform, and racial justice; Kenneth Mack, a Harvard Law School professor and an expert on the history of civil rights and race; and Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, public intellectual, and biographer.


Professor Gage outlined the evolution of the franchise over the course of 200 years of American history, beginning with the simple question of who has the right to vote. At the nation’s inception, only white males with property held this privilege. Gradually, the right to vote expanded over the years to include all white men, then African Americans with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and finally women. Gage stressed that the fundamental right to vote has largely expanded over the centuries, with a few notable exceptions. “In the 19th century it was much easier to be able to show up as an immigrant and vote than it is now,” she noted, also calling to attention the disenfranchisement of Americans in the prison system.

voting-rights-panel-2Yale History Professor Beverly Gage

Gage distinguished the right to vote from the ability to vote, a privilege that has been more restricted in history. She recalled the violent attacks perpetrated against voting African Americans, citing the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, and other methods of voter suppression. Some of these tactics, literacy tests and poll taxes, affected poor white voters as well as black voters. Gage worried that these patterns have reemerged in more subtle ways today: “Voter suppression and barriers to voting are the issue of our age.” Given that presidential elections have been relatively close since Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, the professor stressed that these issues are of newfound importance.


In her summary of American election history, Gage addressed voter fraud, acknowledging that the phenomenon was rampant during the 19th century era of urban political machines, exemplified by Tammany Hall in New York. Voter fraud today is not the issue it once was, she argued, although it has been in the political limelight of late due to the unsubstantiated claims of election rigging from the Republican presidential candidate. As such, both parties are worried about the potential for intimidation or foul play occurring at polling places across the country; unfortunately, as Berman noted, the Department of Justice is no longer able to send election observers to local precincts without a specific court order, due to the Shelby decision.


Kenneth Mack took the legal perspective, contextualizing much of the historical debate over voting rights to the phenomenon of federalism, or the division of power between national, state, and local governments. “Voting is local in the United States,” he said, so how can the federal government protect the franchise when it is an inherently decentralized process? He also put the current debate over voter suppression tactics in context with the first era of widespread black voting during the Reconstruction Era, which was marked by limited federal activism and potent, violent responses such as the New Orleans and Colfax Massacres. Mack cited the Enforcement and Ku Klux Klan Acts as 19th century precursors to the Voting Rights Act and hypothesized that suppression tactics will always be attempted whenever political parties are racially polarized.

voting-rights-panel-3Harvard Law Professor Kenneth Mack

Isela Gutierrez discussed her work as an activist in North Carolina, drawing laughs with the line, “We’re not waiting on the historians to put it into context for us in 30 years. We’re organizing.” She went on to blame the 2013 Shelby decision and a Republican state house for a sweeping series of statutes that limited early voting and placed new restrictions on the franchise, including the hotly-debated voter ID provision that has become law in 33 states. The omnibus bill was announced the very next day after the Supreme Court’s decision was handed down. “The Shelby County case let the genie out of the bottle,” Gutierrez declared. Black voter participation was poised to achieve parity with that of white voters in North Carolina for the first time in history, but she believes the omnibus voting law could reverse that progress. “This law targeted black voters with surgical precision.”


David Stevens is a sophomore in Berkeley who blogs for World at Yale.  You can contact him at