The Grassroots Fight for the Right to Vote

When Rev. Cassandra Gould, director of Missouri Faith Voices, shares why she fights for voting rights, she tells the story of how her mother put her body on the line – leading to a leg injury – in Selma. Through multiple marches and beatings from the police, this freedom fighter understood that the struggle for voting rights was bigger than her, her body, and her generation.  The fight for the right to vote was the fight to secure all other rights for generations to come.

Half a century after Selma, the urgency of that movement could not be clearer as communities of color are still resisting assaults from the state in multiple forms. Black people are fighting back against police brutality in our streets and even our schools.  Our immigrant neighbors are profiled, criminalized, and thrown out as if they were less than human.  Amid these attacks on our humanity and our voice, we are still fighting the same battle that those before us led during the civil rights movement.  The attack on the right to vote is as vigorous as it has been in generations – at stake is our very voice, and indeed, our dignity.

“In slavery, black people were treated as property without rights, without privileges, without personhood.  In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court endorsed this practice when it held that black people had no rights that government was required to respect.  African Americans were not Constitutional People, the Court said, but Constitutional Property.  Black and white Union soldiers fought a Civil War against Confederate secessionists to end the practice of treating human beings as property.  With Union victory, the Nation was reconstructed to guarantee human equality and dignity.  Since Reconstruction, the Nation has struggled to define and secure the Constitutional Personhood of every man, woman, and child.  At the heart of that struggle is the right to vote.” – From “Who Are We The People?” a 2016 pamphlet prepared by Professor Peggy Cooper Davis and her students at NYU Law in support of Advancement Project’s #DontTouchMyVote campaign.

Such assaults on the vote are designed – with “surgical precision” according to one court ruling – to curtail the growing political power of voters of color as they emerge into the new American majority.  Unfortunately, these attacks have been part of this nation’s defining story since its inception.

The lack of an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution is inextricably tied to the history of racism in America.  The framers compromised on this right in order to accommodate slave states and slavery. At the time, there were bitter debates over who should be allowed to vote.  Slave states were “fiercely unwilling to give the federal government wide authority over states on this sensitive issue.”[1]  Ultimately, the Constitutional Convention could not agree on national standards, so they left voting up to the states.

The Founders knew that access to the vote conferred power.  John Adams warned in 1776 that explicitly conferring the vote at the national level would fundamentally change the balance of power across the country: “[T]here will be no end of it . . . it tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.”[2]

This legacy has taken different forms, and it is alive today.  Without explicit protection in the U.S. Constitution, voting still largely remains within control of the states and local election authorities – a whopping 13,000 different election jurisdictions nationwide – where it is more vulnerable to attack by politicians and courts.  Today, dozens of states are on the attack with restrictive photo ID requirements, cuts to early voting and efforts to make voter registration more difficult – the largest rollback to voting rights since Reconstruction.  Taken together, these attacks on the right to vote at the state level constitute a direct, large-scale attack on voters, especially voters of color.

Amidst unfounded cries of “voter fraud” coming from the top of our government intended to demonize the growing American majority, efforts to delegitimize voters of color are paving the way for further restrictions on voting.  Finally, with the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, challenges to these laws’ discriminatory effects are more difficult.

Across the country, movements and communities understand that the most fundamental solution to this problem once and for all is asserting the right to vote – one that will breathe new life into the Constitution and into our democracy.

Advancement Project’s Right to Vote Initiative is a proactive effort to foster a national pro-democracy movement.  Fueled by our partners and pushing to establish an explicit and guaranteed right to vote for all Americans – through constitutional amendments, legislation, or litigation at the federal and state levels – our Right to Vote Initiative seeks to obtain incremental wins to make it easier for people of color to vote and stimulate voter participation by re-imagining the rights of voters and the meaning of American democracy itself.

“No.  [I am not fighting for equality with the white man.]  What would I look like fighting for equality with the white man?  I don’t want to go down that low.  I want the true democracy that’ll raise me and that white man up . . . raise America up.” – Fannie Lou Hamer

To that end, we are thrilled to launch this website,  It is a tool that will assist us, our partners, and you, we hope, in that fight.  We hope you’ll take a moment to learn about why we bring this work in states like Florida in support of efforts to restore voting rights to the state’s 1.6 million citizens – 10 percent of the state’s population – who cannot vote due to a felony conviction.  And to Louisiana, where one in 33 residents cannot vote due to a felony conviction, where our partners are working to restore voting rights for 71,000 parolees and probationers who live and work in their communities but cannot vote.  And to places like Missouri where lawmakers have worked to weaken the state’s constitutional protections for the right to vote.  We also encourage you to review our Reading List and stay engaged with us on this journey that is the grassroots, community-led fight for the right to vote.

We are bracing for more assaults on the voting rights of people of color in the days ahead, and the need for an affirmative right to vote is more urgent now than ever.  Join us in the fight for the right to vote and the rightful claim to our Constitution’s promises of freedom, equality, and dignity for all.

— Denise Lieberman, Co-Director, Power and Democracy Program, Advancement Project

[1] Lani Guinier and James Blacksher, Free at Last: Rejecting Equal State Sovereignty and Restoring the Constitutional Right to Vote, Shelby County v. Holder, 8 Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev. 40 (2014).

[2] Alexandar Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States 1 (2009) (quoting Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States 377-378 (1856)).