Guest Blog: We Shouldn’t Talk about Voting without Talking about Voter Suppression - Complicating the Ideal of One Person, One Vote

by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, Illinois Civics Instructional Coach
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz taught high school in the St. Louis area prior to earning a PhD in history. She was a James Madison fellow, class of 1999, and graduated from Knox College with a BA in history and secondary education. She is the social science teaching coordinator and an associate professor of history at Eastern Illinois University, where she teaches social studies methods courses as well as the U.S. history survey, women’s history, research methods and writing, and courses in the online MA for teachers. She is the Civics Instructional Coach for Clark, Clay, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Edwards, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jasper, Lawrence, Massac, Moultrie, Pope, Richland, Saline, Shelby, Wabash, Wayne & White Counties.
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
We are set to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the moment when American women became voters. Coverage of this centennial abounds, and while some of it offers the nuanced, complicated, and sometimes disheartening story of how women fought for and won suffrage, I wonder if our students sometimes just see this as a moment of progress, a metaphorical checkmark next to another group of people who had once been disenfranchised and are now voters. A similar story might be offered about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, often framed as putting an end to the violence and opposition that disenfranchised African American voters despite the 15th and 19th amendments.

As American patriots, we love stories of upward progress, slow and steady work to expand the bounds of our democratic system, to include more and more voices. I love these stories, too. They are comforting, even inspiring. And yet, I don’t believe that this is the story we should be telling about voting rights in American history. While sixteen states have enacted automatic voter registration, other states have passed stricter voter ID laws, made it harder for college students to vote, closed polls, and decreased the early voting period. Prior to the 2016 election, for example, southern states closed down over 800 polling places.

As we discuss the 19th Amendment, of Shelby v. Holder, and of the upcoming Illinois primary and November’s Presidential election, I believe we should frame voting rights as being contested throughout American history, not just in the past but also in the present. The adage of “one person, one vote” may be our vision of what democracy is, but in the United States each adult person does not have equal ability or access to vote. In his recent book, Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman makes the case that sophisticated tactics aimed at suppressing the vote have been used in the American past and, very importantly, since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We know that cases of voter fraud are very rare. Despite that, voter fraud is often used to justify strict voter ID laws (recently struck down by the state Supreme Court in Missouri) and the kind of voter roll purging that recently made headlines in Wisconsin. The Brennan Center produced an extensively researched report arguing that “fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.” If we believe this report and other such research, we are doing a disservice to our students if we present an argument about voter ID and the need to combat voter fraud that doesn’t consider voter suppression alongside voting rights.

We are also creating unjust cynicism in our students, who we hope will take voting seriously. As Anya Malley points out in Teaching the Truth About Voter Suppression, “For some folks today, there is a lot standing between them and the polls. When we write off all non-voters as lazy or unengaged, we ignore the impact of voter suppression. Instead of pretending that voting is equally easy for everyone, we should explain to students how voter suppression happens and how it affects election outcomes.”

Resources for Teaching about Voting and Voter Suppression

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