As they walked peacefully in protest, they were met with tear gas, clubs, and whips, before proceeding to turn back bruised, bloody, and beaten. Just a week later, however, all the pain they endured seemed worth it to them. To these voting rights activists who bravely marched from Selma to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday, it seemed like the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be a step in the right direction for America. Sadly, 55 years later, although substantial advancements have been made, barriers still exist to voting. As the 2020 elections approach, it is increasingly important for Americans to pay attention to the institutional barriers that prevent certain populations from voting freely and fairly.
Voting barriers will stand firm as long as society fails to ensure equality of civic participation, at and beyond the ballot box, and continues to allow injustice to act as a hindrance. While voting obstacles are naturally extensive, specific ones that disproportionately target minorities can be overlooked. While the United States ostensibly subscribes to the “one man, one vote” principle, in reality, minority groups are still hit hard by language barriers when casting votes. Although a quick Google search will attest that language discrimination is officially prohibited by law, breaking down the sections of that law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, tells a different story. While Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has furthered language assistance immensely, certain groups such as those who speak Arabic or French have learned that they are left unprotected by this law. To quantify, 35% of Arabic-speaking Americans claim that they are unable to speak English well, demonstrating the extent to which voting barriers harm these groups’ voter turnouts without a solution.
Not only does Section 203 exclude certain groups, but it also has lofty requirements to be applicable in the first place. States are only required to provide language assistance if a threshold of 10,000 people speaking the same language is met at the county level, meaning numerous groups are not supplied with equal access to translation services if they are not populous enough. However, if this requirement were to be expanded from the county level to the state level, the barrier would be lessened, as more minority groups would qualify for language access. Voter turnout among these groups would increase remarkably through even a small alteration in this law.
When figuring out where to point the blame for these language barriers, one can’t automatically look to discrimination. Many could argue instead that this problem sprouts from a lack of election funding. Without enough funding, it becomes difficult to hire administration, expand early or absentee voting, and keep polling places up and running. While lack of funding has undoubtedly created several obstacles in the voting process, many states are also able to use it as a cover for underlying discrimination as they ultimately allocate money according to priorities. In fact, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found in 2018 that certain states had claimed to close polling places for the purpose of saving money, with their real objective being to reduce voter turnout among minorities. These closures often happen in low-income areas, disproportionately affecting certain demographics such as rural voters, voters of color, and older voters. Citizens of these demographics must circumnavigate a multitude of obstacles under such circumstances, as they try to find means of transportation to polling places located further away and coordinate work schedule conflicts. After going through all these burdens, they may indeed ultimately be able to vote, but the fact that such barriers initially exist for the most fundamental Constitutional right is unjust.
Unfortunately, there is no clear path to eliminate voting obstacles as of right now, but specific modifications can be made to reduce them and maximize protection of voting rights. One change that would limit voting rights violations is passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) of 2019. Currently, this bill has passed through the House of Representatives, but it must also pass through both the Senate and the President before becoming a law. Subsequently, if the VRAA were to pass these steps, great advancements would be made in ensuring voting rights and barriers would be reduced. This bill includes allowing federal observers to watch over areas of the counties in which racial discrimination occurs, creating a coverage formula so that discrimination can be addressed, and more components that will expand the right to vote. The VRAA also brings up reviewing state laws on multilingual voting materials as well as Voter ID, which are common minority voting barriers. However, with each additional delay that the Senate takes to pass the VRAA, hundreds of thousands of citizens must also extend the wait to be able to cast their votes.
Whether you are personally affected by these voting barriers or not, everyone should recognize that the right to vote is essential in order to truly live in a representative democracy. Especially as the 2020 elections draw near, it is necessary to encourage change in the voting system. To the voting activists who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, such a democracy seemed miles away.tToday, America stands much closer to ensuring equal voting rights and must continue to remove all barriers to voting.. As Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the Selma marches, once said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
Simran Saini is a rising junior in high school from Raleigh, North Carolina who is the incoming Managing Editor of the NGP Blog. She is passionate about both politics and writing as well as bringing out youth voices. Simran is also involved in her local community as a youth attorney and a tutor at her local mobile home park.