Doritos, Vans and Best Buy all turned 50 last year. But so did something else – something that first-time voters often forget: The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Just 50 years ago people were killed for seeking the ballot box. In 1964, for example, Ku Klux Klan members in Mississippi murdered civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner for registering African-Americans to vote.
“Plenty of people were lynched,” said Vanessa Holden, a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in African-American and women’s history. “Plenty of people died trying to affect change around these laws.”
Now you may be thinking, wait… the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
Yes, it’s true that the 15th Amendment stipulates that you can’t deny someone the right to vote based on race. But there were a number of loopholes that states across the country used to keep black men away from the polls. (Yes, men; women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.)
African-Americans were often told that they had gotten the date, time or polling place wrong. They were given literacy tests or told they had filled out an application incorrectly. They were asked to recite the entire constitution before casting a ballot. Sometimes they were even asked to guess how many bubbles were in a bar of soap.
No, really, tell us: How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?
“Literacy tests aren’t just, ‘Can you read?’” said Holden. “They asked you to recite entire amendments of the constitution or the entire preamble from memory and you don’t know which part the clerk is going to ask.
“And the only people asked to meet these requirements happened to be black people,” she continued. “How do you get away with that?
The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, aimed to rectify that by outlawing poll taxes, literacy tests and other methods used to keep African-Americans away from the polls.
After its passage, young people took to their streets, roads and country lanes to register African Americans to vote and ensure their voices would be heard in the 1968 election.
Yet, today young voters continuously vote below their electoral weight. Their highest turnout since 1964 was in the 2008 election – but even then just under 50 percent of eligible voters turned up. And in 2012, just 38% turned out, leaving nearly 60% of young voters ignoring the very right that people fought deadline battles over 50 years ago.
“There’s a level of complacency and people just say, ‘Why bother?’” said Glenn Chambers, director of African-American and African Studies at Michigan State University.
Why should people bother? Because getting the right to vote has been hard fought. Even though the United States was founded in 1776, it wasn’t until the last 100 years that the majority of the population got the right to vote.
Think about it like this. Raise your hand if you’re 21 years old.
Keep your hand in the air if you’re male.
Keep it in the air if you’re white.
Now, keep it up only if you are a property or landowner.
Those of you with your hands still raised are the only people who could vote when the United States was founded. That was about 10-16% of the nation’s population.
Before the Voting Rights Act
Michigan State University professor Joe T. Darden was born in 1943 in Pittsburg and voted for the first time in 1964. Even though he voted in that election without challenge, he remembers what it was like for so many other men and women who were turned away.
“Through violence, intimidation, terrorism by the Ku-Klux-Klan and others, they prevented blacks from voting,” Darden said.
He also said that these men could be fired from their jobs for voting. They were denied home ownership loans and told they couldn’t rent apartments if they voted. He had friends who were afraid to vote.
That makes him his right to vote very seriously.
“I’ve always voted,” he said. “Always. I consider that very important. It is one of the most important things, I think, and I vote all the time because this is my ability to participate. Realizing too, that people died for the right to vote in the black population.”
During the 1964 election, almost 60 percent of the African-American population voted, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — a level that wouldn’t be reached again until President Obama’s 2008 election.
Darden has devoted his entire career to understanding that period of American history, writing number books on race and social issues. He also has been an expert witness in many segregation cases, testified before the senate and house committees and researched these issues and published his work for the community to use.
And he has personal experience. In 1972, at just 29 years old, Darden came to teach at Michigan State University. He was one of only nine African-Americans in the United States with a Ph.D. in Geography.
Darden said he walked into the classroom on his first day ready to teach. The students looked up at him in silence while he looked back. They looked up at him again and asked “When is the professor going to come?”
“I am the professor,” he replied.
Fifty years can seem so long ago to some first-time voters, but for others the VRA is one of the most influential pieces of legislation in U.S. history.
The VRA was passed the year Shawna Stewart’s mother was born. The Michigan State graduate student has known since childhood that members of her family struggled to vote before the VRA’s passage. As a result, she is committed to turning up at the ballot box.
“It is crazy to think that for an amount of time my grandfather and grandmother were not given that ability to have their voices heard,” she said.
More people of color – African-Americans and Latinos primarily – are expected to vote in this election that ever before. In fact, the 2016 electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history with one-in-three eligible voters being from a minority group, according to Pew.
But there are still challenges today.
Today voters aren’t being suppressed like they were back in the 19th century. People aren’t paying poll taxes, asked to pass literacy tests or told to guess how many bubbles are in a bar of soap. But there are still challenges facing college students and minority voters.
Voter ID laws require some form of official identification for a person to be able to vote and that can disadvantage minority voters. Roughly 3.2 million Americans, according to Brennan Center for Justice, don’t possess a government-issued photo ID. Who is affected by this? The 18 percent of all seniors and 25 percent of African-Americans who don’t have photo IDs.
College students also face difficulty voting with “policymakers taking steps to prevent students from registering to vote in their college communities by redefining residency rules and targeting students with misleading information” according to the Campus Vote Project.
“It’s an issue that everyone should be concerned about,” Holden said. “Just because you’re not a part of a group that is suffering right now when it comes to voter suppression, just because you’re not a 95 year old without a valid driver’s license doesn’t mean that one day you won’t be.”