By: Yoshira Macías Mejía and Juan D. Coronado

Photo credit: Tallmaple /
Photo credit: Tallmaple /

On May 16, 2020, at least 71 persons who voted or worked the polls in the Wisconsin primary on April 7th tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that produces the disease COVID-19. Despite the pandemic, voters risked their health and well-being to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Voting is deemed a right of U.S. citizens. Democracy inherently relies on the enfranchisement of the masses. Without universal suffrage, a representative democracy cannot exist. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to vote in the U.S. The Wisconsin presidential primary demonstrates efforts to suppress the right of citizens to free elections in 2020. Initially, Governor Tony Evers hesitated postponing the election. Once Evers finally decided to postpone the election and send absentee ballots to constituents, it was too late for the turnaround to occur on time. The Wisconsin Republican legislature was in support of the election taking place in person and the U.S. Supreme Court decided to block Evers’ executive order to postpone the election. The consequences of this action resulted in many individuals not voting due to fear of contracting the novel coronavirus. Also, individuals requesting an absentee ballot did not receive them in time to meet the deadline. The elimination of polling locations limited access to voting sites among members of underserved communities and decreased turnout.
Voting restrictions are not new and existed in colonial times. Slaves, Native Americans, women, Freed Blacks, Catholics, and Jews were barred from voting. Far from being inclusive, the American War for Independence did not achieve universal suffrage and would not be considered by the Founding Fathers who ensured the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) power structure remained in the hands of the wealthy. However, New Jersey momentarily provided “all inhabitants” the right to vote in its constitution of 1776, revised it in 1790 to read “he and she,” but then, in 1807, limited voting to free White men who paid their taxes. This was done by the Democratic-Republican Party to give itself an advantage over the Federalist Party in upcoming elections. The struggle of White women to obtain the right to vote gained momentum from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first women’s rights convention held in the U.S., with suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony achieving a special place in history.
The same is not true for Native Americans. The struggle for Native Americans’ political inclusion is traced to New Mexico with Miguel Trujillo, a Native American, who fought for the right to vote. The efforts of native men and women like Sophia Alice Callahan, who wrote about enfranchisement of native peoples, are less known. In 1884, the Supreme Court declared in the Case Elk v. Wilkins that Native Americans were not citizens by birthright, thus they could not vote. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 finally gave Native Americans citizenship but voting rights were not fully extended until the 1960s.
African Americans faced similar exclusions. During Reconstruction, the addition of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution extended citizenship and the right to vote to land-owning males over the age of twenty-one. Yet, poll-taxes, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause discouraged and disallowed the large majority of African Americans from voting. The coup de grâce to the voting aspirations of persons of color in the South and the Midwest at that time came in the form of domestic terrorists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, who bulldozed hundreds of thousands of potential votes by employing intimidation tactics and outright violence against these communities, especially on election days. It was very common for hate groups and law enforcement agencies to block roads from these communities to polling stations on election days.
In the 20th century, barriers to the democratic electoral process continued. Ethno-racial minority groups were marginalized by the expanded use of literacy tests and poll taxes that disproportionally disenfranchised these communities. Latino civil rights organizations, such as the Alianza Hispano Americana, LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and the American G.I. Forum, realizing the importance of obtaining political power, held drives, beauty contests, and other fundraisers to pay for poll taxes. The American G.I. Forum formed Viva Kennedy Clubs that not only supported the Democratic presidential ticket but contributed to John F. Kennedy’s slight margin of victory in 1960. Eventually, it would be Lyndon Johnson, who just months after Kennedy’s assassination, showed gratitude to excluded communities by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In signing the law, Johnson showed signs of breaking away from his segregationist Southern base while vocalizing his personal experiences working with the Mexican American community as a schoolteacher in Cotulla, Texas early in his career. A year later, Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would allow historically excluded minorities to vote.
After passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965 new challenges arose to deny voter rights among racial and ethnic minorities. These new tactics include gerrymandered redistricting, increased incarceration rates for Blacks and Latinos, voter ID laws, long lines at the polls, and reduced polling locations. Redrawing district lines has been ongoing for decades by both Democrats and Republicans. However, recently the Republican Party is benefiting the most from redistricting and is in control of the practice. Recently states like Michigan adopted new measures to reduce voter inequities by passing a referendum in 2018 that established the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission that is to ensure that redistricting is in the hands of Michiganders and not legislators.
Voter ID laws have become pervasive modes of voter suppression in recent decades. Research demonstrates that Whites are more likely to have an ID than Blacks, Latinos, and Asians. This creates inequities in political influence among racial and ethnic minorities because it prevents segments of these communities from voting. Native Americans are also less likely to have access to state issued IDs because they rely on their tribal IDs which some states do not accept for voting purposes. North Dakota enacted a voter ID law aimed at voter suppression by requiring that voters have physical street addresses. This law, which the U.S. Supreme Court refused to address, makes it difficult for Native Americans in North Dakota to vote because tribal reservations do not have physical street addresses, which makes it problematic when acquiring an ID that fulfills the requirements of the voting law. This law perpetuates structural and institutional racism 21st century style.
There is a need to restore and maintain the right to vote among citizens. In the 2016 presidential election, flawed voter machines in several states including California hindered trust among voters. The removal of early voting opportunities in some states also reduces the opportunities to vote. Long lines were a problem during the presidential primary in Texas in March 2020, with Blacks and Latinos waiting one to two hours to vote. Instead of waiting in line, many people forfeited their democratic voice. Not so in Wisconsin, however, where voters were forced to stand in long voting lines in April as the pandemic spread throughout the state and the country.
Racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, and political conservatism continue to limit universal suffrage. Attention needs to be given to the rhetoric used to obstruct voter access. In the 2020 election season, President Trump and the Republican Party have promoted rhetoric opposing the use of absentee ballots due to potential voter fraud. These arguments are not new and were pervasive two decades ago in the 2000 election. Absentee or distance voting are essential given the current health crisis engendered by the pandemic, otherwise election postponement and lack of social distancing measures among voters may reduce the turnout, which most likely would benefit the Republican Party’s chances of maintaining political power.
In protecting the right of all citizens to vote during the 2020 election, government at all levels must ensure that every registered voter is able to cast an absentee ballot, provide early voting options, provide transportation and language services to vulnerable populations, enact automatic registration for adults, and add more (rather than closing) polling locations. These are key immediate steps that should be taken prior to all elections to increase turnout among all population segments. That is, if Americans still value democracy.