Voting Rights and the Midterm Elections

What new challenges to voting are Americans facing and why does it matter?

Midterm elections are approaching. Control of Congress is up for grabs, and the elections offer the opportunity for a polarized and energized electorate to reverse or strengthen course, supporting or checking President Trump’s agenda. Will this charged political climate encourage voters to depart from the American trend of low voter turnout, particularly for midterm elections? During presidential elections, six out of ten eligible voters vote. The turnout in past midterms was even lower: 40%.

Voter turnout is determined not just by who wants to vote but also by restrictions created by individual states. Access to the ballot box has been contested throughout United States history—from the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Jim Crow era, and from the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder.

This fall, access to voting itself is on the ballot in many states. Voters will weigh in on 21 ballot measures related to voting, including:

  • Making voting and registration easier in Maryland and Nevada
  • Extending franchisement to felons in Florida (two other states prevent felons from voting)
  • Limiting the window to register or vote early in Michigan
  • Requiring identification to vote in Arkansas, North Carolina, and North Dakota

Other ballot measures focus on redrawing voting districts in Colorado, Michigan, Montana, and Utah (Ohio voted last May for redistricting). Some interpret these ballot measures as attempts to dilute the political power of certain groups and political parties. Others see them as a remedy for historic gerrymandering when states drew oddly shaped voting districts to numerically advantage one political party.

While midterms usually lack the excitement of presidential campaigns, this November may be dramatic. These teaching ideas underscore basic and impactful issues of who can vote, who can’t vote, and who is kept from voting. Students can consider the expansion of franchisement since 1789, the struggles of groups who fought to gain the right to vote, and intentional legal efforts to dilute particular groups of voters’ impact.

Encourage Students to Reflect on Their Connection to Voting

Use the Think, Pair, Share strategy to give students the opportunity to respond to and discuss the following prompt:

Do you think voting is important? Why or why not?

Explore the History of Voting Rights

Construct a history of voting rights in the United States, from 1789 to the present, using the Human Timeline teaching strategy.

For inspiration, watch the 2016 video So You Think You Can Vote (5:23) which includes the constitutional framework for states administering elections and recent restrictions.

Key suffrage moments to include on the Human Timeline include the following:

  • Removal of property requirements
  • The Fourteenth Amendment
  • The Fifteenth Amendment
  • The Nineteenth Amendment
  • Suffrage for Native Americans
  • The Voting Rights Act
  • The Twenty-Sixth Amendment
  • Recent initiatives such as Voter ID and disenfranchising felons

Introduce the Voting Rights Act and Shelby v. Holder

Crucial context for understanding many of the contemporary challenges to voting is the 2013 Supreme Court decision in the case Shelby v. Holder. In order to explore the significance of that case, students also need to know about the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was passed to remedy severe restrictions on voting by African Americans during the Jim Crow Era.

In pairs or as a whole class, ask students to spend a few minutes brainstorming how and why states have restricted voting. You might provide them with a question to help them get started:

Have there been times in United States history when citizens have been denied access to vote? When? Where?

Have a few pairs share their responses.

Then, review the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), which provided federal protections for all voters. The VRA was a response to nearly a century of discrimination against African American voters, who were often prevented from voting despite the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Under the VRA, states that had restricted voting—through legal barriers like poll tests or through violence and intimidation—had to submit to federal oversight to ensure that their voting systems were fair to all. (Facing History’s blog post What the 1965 Voting Rights Act Can Teach Us About Voter Fraud Today provides insight into the historical and contemporary context.)

Place students in small groups of four and distribute the summary for the constitutional challenge to the VRA in the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder (2013). (For advanced students provide the complete majority and dissenting opinions.)

Using the Café Conversations teaching strategy, assign students to be:

  • Shelby County (the Alabama county claiming the VRA is unconstitutional)
  • Eric Holder, Jr., the former Attorney General for President Obama (defending the constitutionality of the VRA)
  • Chief Justice John Roberts (writing for the narrow majority of the Court and siding with Shelby County)
  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (writing for the minority of the Court and disagreeing with the ruling)

Prompt students to discuss this case, from their assigned viewpoint, and discuss the following questions:

  • Why was the VRA necessary in 1965?
  • Why did Shelby County challenge it in 2013?
  • What was the Court’s opinion?
  • Why do you think four justices dissented?
  • What do you think has been the impact of Shelby v. Holder?

Examine Challenges to Voting Today

After Shelby v. Holder overturned key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states have passed new restrictions on voting and have made accessing the ballot box more difficult for many.

Georgia is one state that has enacted several new voting restrictions, and by examining them students can deepen their understanding of the significance of the Shelby v. Holder decision. Share the Brennan Center report What’s the Matter with Georgia? with your students. You might divide students into four groups, assigning one section of the article to each group, and have them discuss the voting restrictions in Georgia using the Jigsaw strategy.

After looking at Georgia in depth, share the Brennan Center interactive map New Voting Restrictions in America with students. After exploring the information provided on the map, have students synthesize their thinking about it using the S-I-T (Surprising, Interesting, Troubling) strategy.

Finally, you might assign students to research the state of voting rights and ballot box access in your own state.

For more teaching ideas on voting, view A New Generation of Young Voters Emerges.

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