A lesson on voting rights — and suppression — during the pandemic that students won’t learn in textbooks


Evers convened a special session of the legislature on Saturday, during which the Republican-led body would not consider a proposal to cancel in-person voting. In addition, Republicans have asked the Supreme Court to block an extension of a deadline for mail-in ballots.

Critics of the Republican insistence that the vote be held say it is an attempt to make it harder for voters who historically vote for Democrats from going out to the polls to vote. And they say that voter suppression efforts are happening elsewhere as well.

In Georgia, for example, state House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, opposed sending absentee ballots to every Georgia voter for the upcoming primary. “This will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia,” Ralsto, said during an interview with Fetch Your News, a North Georgia news site. “Every registered voter is going to get one of these. … This will certainly drive up turnout.”

President Trump himself recently linked higher voter turnout with Republican electoral losses, saying during a Fox News interview last week that implementation of efforts to increase voting participation would create “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

With a presidential election months away and uncertainty about whether and how the pandemic might affect it, here is a lesson for students and everybody else on the history of voter suppression in this country.

It was written by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, has taught high school social studies since 2000. She is on the editorial board of “Rethinking Schools,” a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public schools and a publisher of educational materials in the United States and many other countries.

She is also the project organizer and curriculum writer for the nonprofit Zinn Education Project, which offers free downloadable lessons and articles organized by theme, time period, and grade level. They are based on the approach to history highlighted in Howard Zinn’s best-selling book., “A People’s History of the United States,” emphasizing the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history.

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which promised “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Given the dizzying array of disruptions to our lives in this moment of pandemic, one could be forgiven for failing to register this anniversary. But the fight for voting rights enshrined in 15th Amendment is still very much alive, and more critical now than ever — and needs to be taught to every student in this country.

The coronavirus pandemic makes in-person voting dangerous, literally a potential death sentence. And the people most vulnerable to coronavirus are also the most likely to already face disproportionate obstacles to voting: black, brown, and indigenous communities, the elderly, the poor, the incarcerated.

Voting rights activists are calling for immediate implementation of measures that are basic, long overdue, and which will protect the health of all voters: extension of early voting, online registration options, universal mail-in-ballots. But Republican legislatures across the country balk, citing logistical barriers and the dangers of “voter fraud.” President Trump, however, dispensed with such pretense. He told Fox News last week that implementation of vote-by-mail and other pro-democratic measures would create “levels of voting thatm if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

On the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, the right to vote is under attack from voter ID laws to voter-roll purges, and gerrymandering to poll closures. And it is critical that students learn about the fight for voting rights, past and present.

Unfortunately, textbooks will be of little use.

For example, the book adopted by my school district outside of Portland, Oregon, to teach 10th- and 11th-grade U.S. history, is National Geographic’s “America Through the Lens” (2019). It mentions the 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870; the 19th Amendment, adopted in 1920; and the Voting Rights Act, passed 45 years later. But the story ends there. The text suggests that the history of voting rights in the United States is a hopeful tale of steady progress, culminating in 1965, and provides no context to understand the current moment.

A good place to begin a study of today’s voting rights struggles is Reconstruction, a time when, as Rethinking Schools editor Adam Sanchez notes, “Black lives mattered.”

In my classroom, students imagine themselves newly freed in the months immediately following emancipation and wrestle with the key questions of freedpeople — how to access land, political power, safety, and education. There is disagreement among my 21st-century students — as there was among the real 19th-century freedpeople — about what should happen to Confederate leaders (execution? amnesty?) and about whether to grow cotton to appease Northern elites or permanently renounce a crop that one cannot eat and that is so closely connected with slavery.

But about voting, students rarely disagree. Trying to imagine themselves as freedpeople, they see the vote as critical to all their other aspirations. In follow-up discussion of this activity, we reflect on what really happened during the Reconstruction Era. Students are outraged to learn that plantations were returned to Confederates rather than allocated to freedpeople. But they celebrate the 15th Amendment, which immediately extended the vote to nearly 500,000, mostly formerly enslaved, Black men across the South. Like freedpeople themselves, my students see the right to vote as fundamental to freedom.

Fundamental, but not secure. In the years following the passage of the 15th Amendment, myriad forms of racism — violence, devious new voting qualifications, economic exploitation, denial of education — combined to neuter the 15th Amendment and disenfranchise millions of black people. By the middle of the 20th century, less than 7 percent of eligible African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote. Though white supremacists succeeded in their campaign of disenfranchisement, black people and their allies never stopped demanding the franchise, through legal action, civil disobedience, and mass politics.

Though my textbook makes little connection between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement — indeed they are separated by hundreds of pages in its relentlessly chronological march through history — it was the unceasing activism of black people, and others, that led to the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act and finally secured the promises of the 15th Amendment for millions of voters.

In the voting rights mixer lesson I wrote for the Zinn Education Project, students appreciate this full-circle moment. Through role play, students encounter dozens of stories, across centuries, about the fight for voting rights. They learn about the achievements of the Reconstruction Era when they “meet” figures such as Frances Harper, Frederick Douglass, and William T. Combash — and about how Reconstruction promises were restored, renewed, and reinvigorated by later activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Lawrence Aaron Nixon, and Lamar Smith.

From Elzie McGill, an activist from Lowndes County, Mississippi, students learn that by outlawing many of the voting qualifications used to deny black people their 15th Amendment rights, as well as requiring strong federal oversight of state and local elections, the Voting Rights Act was one of the most effective pieces of legislation in U.S. history. It resulted in the immediate registration of hundreds of thousands of new Black voters.

In a typical U.S. history textbook, the struggle for voting rights ends in 1965. Textbooks describe the Voting Rights Act — rightly — as a major victory for democracy and the Civil Rights Movement. My students’ textbook, “America Through the Lens,” was published in 2019, and even covers the 2016 election, but it does not mention the fight for voting rights — or the rise of new forms of voter suppression — since 1965. A number of other textbooks I consulted end their coverage of voting rights at the Voting Rights Act, too, with a couple mentioning the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971.

The fight to vote is very much alive, which is why the lesson I described above also includes more than a dozen examples of recent voter suppression and activism, presented alongside those of earlier eras. When students encounter side-by-side stories of 19th-century property requirements, 20th-century poll taxes, and 21st-century voter ID requirements, the lesson is clear: Antidemocratic measures that keep the vote out of the hands of the poor are not bygones of a less enlightened era, but recurring motifs in the U.S. story.

Why, students wonder, is voting suppression back in vogue?

Over the last decade, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the right-wing group that develops “model” legislation, has sought to transform U.S. politics at the state level, including through voter suppression. ALEC crafts cookie-cutter versions of proposed laws that are brought to states, to realize a conservative utopia of deregulation, tax breaks, and massive disinvestment from public spending.

In 2011, ALEC made voting qualifications one of its priorities, and 33 states introduced so-called “voter ID laws” in that year alone. These laws require burdensome forms of identification to vote — forms of identification that are less common among poor and nonwhite voters. The calculus is obvious. Poor, black, and brown voters are the least likely to support ALEC’s legislative agenda and the most likely to be blocked from voting by these new laws.

As students participating in the voting rights mixer learn from people such as Aracely Calderon and Maggie Coleman, ALEC’s agenda of disenfranchisement got a boost from the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, when it ruled that a critical piece of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.

Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act required that locales with an established history of voter suppression or discrimination get permission — “pre-clearance” — from the federal government before changing voting rules or registration qualifications. State and local governments had to prove to regulators that the new policies had no discriminatory intent toward nor disparate impact upon historically disenfranchised groups — before making any changes. By doing away with pre-clearance, Shelby gave states the power to pass new legislation related to voting with no oversight.

The combination of conservative activists such as ALEC and the hands-off approach signaled by the Supreme Court means voter suppression is on the rise. According to the nonprofit Brennan Center, 25 states have enacted new voting restrictions since 2010.

Although my textbook mentions Russian interference in the 2016 election, it is completely silent on this other kind of “interference” in the democratic process.



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