Originally published in The Observer on Wednesday, March 29, 2017
ND Votes hosted this semester’s third installment of Pizza, Pop and Politics, which explored voting rights in the U.S., on Tuesday. The discussion was led by professor Jennifer Mason McAward, an associate professor of law and director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame, and professor Jason Pierce, an American studies professor who specializes in American history and civil rights.
Pierce began the discussion by giving the audience a historical perspective on voting rights, specifically those of African Americans. In 1864, a group of African Americans created a list of demands for the union after the Civil War, including the abolition of slavery, full citizenship rights for all African Americans, voting rights for African American men and land redistribution, he said.
“Voting was a political right because it was a preservative of all rights … the court recognized that voting was a political act,” Pierce said. “Politics is about power, and voting allows power to be exercised. So central to the African-American reform effort has been the right to vote — not land reform, not reparations, but the right to vote. It shows how powerful it is, but it shows how contested it is. Voting restrictions allow power to be retained.”
They received almost all of their charges through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments between 1865 and 1870, Pierce said, but in 1898 the Mississippi court upheld that voting restrictions, such as a poll tax and literacy tests, were reasonable.
“Americans think that voting is a privilege and a right, but those two things don’t necessarily go together,” he said. “That which is a privilege and that which is a right — not to be politically oxymoronic, a right is not something that you earn, it’s something that you gain because of your standing as a United States citizen. A privilege, it may be an honor to vote, but it’s not a gift.”
Voting restrictions did not change until the U.S. introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Pierce said was “flawed as an effective device, but effective as a political device.”
Following Pierce, McAward reflected on the role law has played in voting rights. The 15th amendment, which in name prevented racial discrimination in voting, was disregarded for 95 years, she said.
“There was a mass campaign of terror in the South, and African Americans were effectively barred from exercising their constitutional right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which congress passed to ban racial discrimination in voting practices,” McAward said.
Although she agreed with Pierce about the flaws of the 1965 act, McAward said it was the most effective law of its kind, allowing a quarter of a million new voters to register.
McAward examined President Trump’s claims of voter fraud — which has gained a national spotlight since the 2016 election — and said there are a few different claims of voter fraud, including impersonating a deceased person, a false claim of citizenship, incorrectly filling out an absentee ballot or government officials intentionally creating false votes.
Though not denying its existence, McAward said voter fraud is rare and most likely did not cause Trump to lose the popular vote, as he claims.
“Neither one [of the studies Trump has cited] supports his claims, although they do point to other problems in the system,” she said.
The first study, which states that there are 24 million inaccurate voter registrations, does not necessarily mean that those people attempted to vote in multiple jurisdictions, McAward said, and a 2014 study, which said six percent of noncitizens voted in the 2008 presidential election, is based on an Internet survey which used methodology that may have skewed the data.
“The author said that we have no information that these illegal votes actually impacted the outcome of the election,” she said. “Bottom line, voter fraud exists, and it happens, but it’s infrequent — particularly in-person voter fraud — and when it does happen it’s almost never outcome determinative.”
Citing these surveys, McAward said identification requirements for voting aren’t necessary to prevent voting fraud and serve to disenfranchise those without state-issued identification, namely minority, elderly and low-income populations.
“The voting rights movement started with bloodshed from the Civil War to Jim Crowe,” she said. “While the bloodshed is behind us, I hope, the struggle continues — just in a new form. For those of you who are interested in political participation, it requires our continued vigilance and commitment.”