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John Dittmer, professor emeritus, sits on a bench with East College in the background

The Bo(u)lder Question by John Dittmer

The Bo(u)lder Question

is a regular feature of DePauw Magazine, which is published three times a year.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, many people of color have reported being disenfranchised and many state legislatures have enacted laws that some say discourage or disallow voting.

We asked John Dittmer, professor emeritus of history and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning book, “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi”:


How can all Americans, regardless of their color, be assured that their right to vote is inviolable?

Since the beginning of Reconstruction, suppression of the Black vote has been a priority for Southern state legislatures. Mississippi led the way, calling a constitutional convention in 1890 for the express purpose of “eliminating the Negro vote,” and a poll tax and a requirement that the applicant explain a passage of the state constitution to a white registrar’s satisfaction had predictable results. Other Southern states followed suit and, by the turn of the 20th century, few Blacks voted in any Southern state.

The Civil Rights Movement changed that. African Americans organized across the South; in Mississippi, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee prioritized registering Black voters but made little progress until activists in Selma, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, focused the nation’s attention on a Deep South county where only 4% of the eligible Black electorate was registered to vote. The police-perpetrated violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge shocked the nation and led to Congress passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At the law’s heart was the “preclearance” provision, which prohibited states with a history of discriminatory voting practices from passing new laws until they could show that the proposed changes would not have a racially discriminatory effect. It was enormously effective. According to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, preclearance “blocked thousands of discriminatory voting changes that would have curtailed the voting rights of millions of citizens in jurisdictions large and small.” The Voting Rights Act had bipartisan support. When it came up for periodic renewal, every Republican president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush signed off on it.

All that changed in 2013, when a conservative Supreme Court ruled that the provision no longer applied, arguing that racial discrimination in voting was a thing of the past! Immediately a number of states passed laws restricting the franchise. Among the first was Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed through a bill requiring a state-issued ID to be presented at the polls. Registered students at DePauw who were from other states were ruled ineligible, while out-of-state students at public universities, who had state-issued student IDs, could vote in Indiana.

Although there has been no evidence of significant voter fraud in any state, the results of the 2020 election, when Democrats made significant gains in red states such as Georgia and Arizona, led to more widespread restrictive measures. In all, 18 states have passed 30 laws limiting ballot access, including Georgia, which made it illegal to give water to voters standing in lines, obviously targeting minority districts with few polling places and long lines.

Efforts to deny Blacks the ballot go back to the aftermath of the Civil War, and the current wave of discriminatory legislation threatens the foundation of our democracy. Garland said that “it is time for Congress to act again to protect that fundamental right” to vote. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2021, which restores the preclearance provision to federal law, is a good place to start.

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