Protecting voting rights is a matter of human dignity and justice

We must remember the history in our country and rightfully demand our place as citizens. We must reaffirm the right to vote as a right to dignity and acceptance in our democracy.

Apr 2, 2024

By Dr. Sabrina E. Dent
Director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation

The fight to protect and expand voting rights in the United States is one that resonates throughout generations.

I grew up in Petersburg, Va., a predominantly African American city in the South with a deep connection to the Civil War and the Confederacy, and my parents always emphasized the importance of voting. Although my hometown has a complicated history for Black people, my parents never focused on partisan politics as much as the values they upheld as law-abiding citizens. In addition to being active in church, my father was a Pentecostal preacher who worked for the Boy Scouts of America, and my mother worked retail and served as president of the local chapter of the American Business Women’s Association for one year. In our household, the expectation was at age 18 that you would register to vote because the right to vote was a matter of dignity and full inclusion in a civilization that is quick to reject certain people.

Voting is essential to democracy. In addition to shaping policies and laws that address our social needs and concerns, it has been utilized by American citizens for centuries to determine the basic functioning of society, how schools will be funded, and who will represent the best interest of our communities and families. Citizenship has always been an essential criteria of one’s ability to vote in America. History teaches us that not all Americans have been afforded this freedom equally, and it has — and continues to — come at a cost to those who fight to pursue it.

In 1790, what it meant to be a citizen — according to the Naturalization Act — was that you were a white, land-owning male with voting rights, even if you were a descendant from Western Europe who was not born in the United States. This excluded poor whites, women, Blacks and Indigenous people who were already in the country — mainly because the latter two groups were not seen as human but rather as property without any rights. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation ceremoniously liberated enslaved Black people, citizenship rights were not granted until 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment, but it still did not guarantee the right to vote.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment made it possible for African American men to have the right to vote in the United States. This took place during the Reconstruction era, which opened many opportunities for African American people to thrive in the country — including the right to run for public office. With the South having a higher population of Blacks with voting rights, more than 1,500 African Americans served as elected or appointed officials. However, over the years, voting did not come without governmental challenges, restrictions and barriers to their full participation in democracy.

From Jim Crow laws through legalized segregation in the 20th century, voter suppression and intimidation took many forms. My paternal grandfather, Kever Howard Dent of Chesapeake, Va., was one of millions of African Americans who experienced voter suppression in the 1960s. As required by law, he paid the polling tax months ahead of voting. However, when he arrived at the polls, he was confronted with bigotry when he was asked to guess the correct number of jelly beans in the jar before he could cast his vote. My grandfather stood his ground and refused to participate in this discriminatory test to prove his worthiness as a voter. Ultimately, he was given a ballot and allowed to vote, but it came at emotional and mental cost — not only to him, but also to my uncle and father who bore witness to the event as children. How do you begin to leverage your agency in a society that undermines your worth?

After voting in the Virginia primary elections this year, I experienced a nuanced form of voter intimidation myself when an electoral judge made an unnecessary comment. As I exited the polling location, the judge thanked me for coming out and then stated that I should invite my friends to come back because they would be there until 7 p.m. Then, his remarks became awkward when he said, “We are running a special: One person, one vote.” Given the history and complexities of this principle, it reminded me of how the perceived threats to democracy about voter fraud ring loud in the minds of some Americans. However, there was a deeper mental and emotional impact as I began to wonder why he decided to make that comment toward me. This included thoughts about my personhood and assumptions about my political affiliation. No voter should ever feel this way. Being a concerned citizen who has been engaged in voting rights and mobilization work, I contacted the Election Protection hotline to report the incident because communities are impacted when we as individuals fail to exhibit moral courage.

In 2024, the work has to continue. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there were 356 voter restriction bills considered across 47 states in 2023 — bills that target disenfranchised groups, including communities of color, college students, people with disabilities, seniors, LGBTQ+ people, and returning citizens.

We should continue to protect and expand voting rights in ways that dignify every citizen. That means all of us must speak out when we witness voter suppression or voter intimidation tactics — whether it’s new policy proposals or statements from our leaders that undermine voter confidence. The actions we take may not be grand or create a Supreme Court case, but they help us move closer to having a democracy that reflects the concerns of every person.

We must not cower to the threats of voter intimidation, suppression and discrimination. Instead, we must remember the history in our country and rightfully demand our place as citizens. We must reaffirm the right to vote as a right to dignity and acceptance in our democracy. That takes not only our words but our actions.

Click here for a timeline of voting rights in the United States, provided by the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation.

To learn more about voting suppression, visit the website of the Brennan Center for Justice:

Dr. Sabrina Dent is the director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation.

This article first appeared in the spring 2024 edition of Report from the Capital.  You can download it as a PDF or read a digital flip-through edition