Today marks 54 years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, prohibiting racial discrimination that was all too common at polling places across the Deep South. Six years ago, the act was gutted by the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder, eliminating oversight of new voting laws in jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination.
This decision opened the floodgates, allowing conservative lawmakers to pursue voter suppression tactics like modern-day poll taxes, photo identification requirements and limited access to the ballot box. These new restrictions disproportionately affect people of color, as well as the elderly, people with disabilities and people with lesser economic means. And they build on laws passed during the Jim Crow era that continue to disenfranchise people with felony convictions today.
This has a profound impact on our community. Moreover, the compounding effects of racism, sexism, and criminalization of poverty lead to a devastating and often overlooked burden specifically on low-income Black women entitled to a voice in our democracy.
Take our client Rosemary McCoy, for example. After Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4 – restoring voting rights to 1.4 million people with felony convictions – Rosemary registered to vote. Having completed her prison and probation terms, Rosemary cast a ballot in a run-off city council election in May.
Just months later, Rosemary lost her right to vote after the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature undermined the state’s voters and enacted a poll tax, mandating that those re-enfranchised citizens can only vote after paying off all legal financial obligations associated with their criminal sentence. Rosemary, who completed her sentence but owes more than $7,500 in restitution that she cannot afford to pay, may never vote again.
Rosemary is not alone – approximately 6 million Americans are barred from voting because of felony convictions and at least 30 states operate some form of poll tax – but she faces a unique and layered set of challenges. She is Black, a woman, a mother and a grandmother, low-income, unemployed and is formerly incarcerated person.
Most Black women only truly gained the right to vote under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, almost a century after Black men – before Jim Crow laws infringed on their rights – and decades after white women. Now, Black women and women of color are losing that right at a faster rate than anyone else. That’s because women are the fastest-growing demographic in our nation’s prison system and, unsurprisingly, it is Black women and women of color who are disproportionately locked up.
When released from prison, Black women face often insurmountable odds. Like Rosemary, nearly half of Black women with a criminal history are unable to find gainful employment. Even if she were able to find a job, the racial and gender wage gaps still put her at a disadvantage in a country where Black women’s weekly earnings are just 65.3 percent of white men’s.
Discrimination, in all its forms, has no place at the ballot box. If every voice matters – which is a central tenet of the Voting Rights Act – we must make voting easier, not harder. Participation in our democracy should not hinge on the color of our skin, our gender identity, or the amount of money in our pockets.
It is our obligation as advocates and as members of the Black community to fight, like the generations before us, for a robust right to vote. That is achieved by the restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to its full strength, the repeal of all Jim Crow-era legal restrictions, and passing of legislation to expand and ease access to the franchise.
Nancy Abudu is the Deputy Legal Director for Voting Rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center.