American democracy is often spoken of in lofty language, but between the lines is a troubling story of exclusion and discrimination. Voter suppression has taken many forms, including limiting eligibility to white male landowners, Jim Crow-era methods like poll taxes and literacy tests, and modern-day disinformation campaigns.
The conspiracy theory about a stolen election in 2020 is proving useful to bolster support for another round of restrictions. Legislators have introduced 361 bills to restrict voting in 47 states as of late March—108 more than the 253 restrictive bills counted in mid-February of this year. That’s a 43 percent increase in little more than a month, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In March, Humanities Washington held an online discussion that explored the forces that push and pull on our right to vote. The panel featured Angelique M. Davis, an associate professor of political science and African and African American studies at Seattle University, whose recent work has focused on how we can make invisible racism visible; Representative Debra Lekanoff (Tlingit name Xix chi’ See), 40th Legislative District and currently the only Native American serving in the Washington State Legislature; Josué Estrada, University of Washington doctoral candidate in history whose research focuses on the issues Latino people face in the United States, including voter suppression and the challenge of political mobilization; and Terry Anne Scott, director of African American studies at Hood College who focuses social violence, lynching, social movements, and the intersection of race and sports. The panel was moderated by Johann N. Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University.
The following excerpts, edited for length and clarity, are only a small part of a much more expansive conversation. Check out the whole conversation on Humanities Washington’s YouTube channel.
On the myth of widespread voter fraud
Angelique Davis: There was a study in 2012 by political scientists at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin that concluded the proportion of the population who would impersonate someone at the polls is indistinguishable from the number of people reporting abduction by extraterrestrials. So this [voter fraud myth] is really absurd if you look at the studies that consistently show what a lie, what a fraud it is. People are choosing to believe a lie.
Terry Anne Scott: I think much of that psychology is white privilege and white entitlement. There’s a notion that white entitlement should govern politics and who can vote. Which is why [voter suppression] laws are so clearly racist, and why it was so easy for the last administration to turn large numbers of people against entire cities like Atlanta and Detroit and Philadelphia. Because of this idea that these people, these brown people shouldn’t have the right to determine the election. These other people should have.
The question is, how do you sell what you’re trying to sell? One tactic is a sales pitch, and one that is completely false: The GOP sells this notion that there is widespread voter fraud. That fraud is unproven—out of three million votes they’ll find one case. But we know what the subtext is, and the subtext is what all of us are getting: [the aim is to] limit, restrict, or remove the power of Black and brown people.
Things like the 1965 Voting Rights Act were brought about because of foot soldiers who got up every day, put one foot in front of the other, and said, “We’re not going to allow this.” We have to remember that progress has been made, that new moral paradigms have been established.
Josué Estrada: This reminds me of a Daniel Martinez HoSang book called Racial Propositions. He writes about racial liberalism and the language that is used to put forth these laws. These propositions don’t use race at all, they use this language: “equality,” “liberty,” “protection of voting rights.” Then every day, ordinary people look at these laws and think, “Oh yeah this is good for our voting process.” And they vote for that proposition. But the intent, the underlying message, is to deny, to exclude. On new voter laws being applied “equally:”
Josué Estrada: The idea of color blindness is within these laws to suppress the vote. English literacy tests were one of those laws—they were supposedly administered fairly, equitably, but we know that in the South, they were absolutely used to limit and restrict Black people from accessing the ballot. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is significant legislation. I’ll just give three points. It added some teeth behind the 14th and 15th Amendments: that race couldn’t be used to disenfranchise voters. It suspended literacy tests. It also prohibited new laws from coming into place without a preclearance measure. And then it also allowed federal examiners to go into the South and make sure elections were fair. Now the debate leading into the Voting Rights Act is fascinating, because in the South you have these states that are saying, “No, our tests are fair, our tests are equitable.” But in the northern states, those states that have literacy tests in place, they’re saying, “Well, you all in the South are using race to discriminate against voters. We in the North, no, we don’t have an issue. We administer fairly, equitably,” when that was absolutely not the case.
Terry Anne Scott: The point you’re making about not having Southern exceptionalism is really important. Because historically and today it’s very easy for people to look and say, “Well of course that happened in the former Confederacy. That’s what happened down there.” And we have to understand that those kinds of tactics, as you pointed out, existed in other spaces. Those tactics required sanctioning from the federal government to exist. There were a series of court cases that went before the Supreme Court, like in 1898 Williams vs. Mississippi, that said, “Oh, it’s okay. You can continue to have a literacy test and a poll tax and all of these kinds of things.” And so, this is a national problem. This is not just a Southern problem.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff: You’re right, Terry, it’s not just an issue in the South. You talk about the First Americans and Native Americans. This is our country. This is where our blood, our roots, our names are—this is our people. When the US ratified its constitution in 1788, it wasn’t until 136 years after that that Native Americans could vote. When Black Americans won citizenship through the 14th Amendment in 1868, the government specifically said that that law did not apply to Native Americans. We would have to fight up until the ‘60s. And Utah was the last state in 1962 to allow Native Americans to vote.
On voter suppression efforts in Washington State:
Josué Estrada: In Washington State there was actually a law that said Indians who weren’t taxed could not vote here in Washington State. And literacy tests were adopted here in our state in 1896. [They were mainly] targeted at Chinese people—there was a strong anti-Chinese segment here in Washington State—but there were also used to disenfranchise a number of Indigenous people, who, according to the state literacy test, were unable to read English or speak English. And when that law was written off the books in 1970, the Yakima Herald published an article of a Native woman from Yakima registering for the first time to vote. It was a very powerful image.
On how to fight voter suppression efforts:
Terry Anne Scott: Listening to all of the things we are all talking about can be very discouraging and disillusioning. One of the things that we have to remember is to fight against that. History has also demonstrated that while there are these historical parallels in the types of tactics and ideologies and motivations for voter suppression, we also know that they’ve been fought. Things like the 1965 Voting Rights Act were brought about because of foot soldiers who got up every day, put one foot in front of the other, and said, “We’re not going to allow this.” We have to remember that progress has been made, that new moral paradigms have been established.
And there’s a culture that you can create in your communities, in your family and in your neighborhood, when you understand that voting is your power. One of the things that I’m not above doing—I do it all the time with my own children, who are twins who are 18, first time voters in the fall, as well as with my students—is that I tell them people have died for you to have the right to vote. So you owe it to others to make sure to take that precious gift and to use it properly.
Josué Estrada: It’s so crucial for local governments to create a culture where voting is encouraged by everybody. In 1968, the Mexican-American Federation sued Yakima county to eliminate its English literacy test. One person that was part of that court case was Jennie Marin. She was a US citizen. Her son was in the Navy. She wanted to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, and the city clerk there denied her the right to vote; ripped her registration card and threw it in the garbage. She was upset and mad because even after that English literacy test was wiped out, she had to go and pay her water bill and still meet that same person there. It’s so important that these local governments create a change in those communities that encourage bringing Latinos, bringing Native American people, bringing African American people and encourage them to participate in electoral politics.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff: There’s great hope in Washington State. We have incredible people who are serving all of you every day. We’re seeing laws that we’ve never seen before. I’ve heard voices on the People’s f loor and values and cultures that weren’t there 20 years ago. Don’t be afraid to stand up. Look for the change. Identify the change and find your place. Your voice matters. You matter. Get out and recognize and help others to vote. If you have a strong heart and spirit on a certain particular topic, get out and share your voice. Because that’s what being an American is about. I’m your First American saying welcome to my America. Uplift and get the vote out, remove those barriers, advocate, be strong. A little bit of hope to leave you guys with: we have redistricting coming up. It is an enormous decision to be made for the state of Washington. Our redistricting committee for the first time has a Native American woman coming out of the Yakima area, and who’s the chair. It has a Native American man, who also sits on the board. It has a woman of color, April Simmons, who’s sitting on the board. The redistricting was predominantly one color, one gender, up until this year. So, you have to own that hope and you have to live up to it. And you’ve got to remove the barriers to get out to vote. And don’t forget to run for office.
Watch the full “Uncounted” discussion on our YouTube channel.