Do Voters of Color Have a Right to Vote in the 2016 Presidential Election?

Do Voters of Color Have a Right to Vote in the 2016 Presidential Election?

Spoiler: Technically, none of us do. And that needs to change.

By Judith Browne Dianis


The 2016 election is in full swing. Presidential candidates have fervently campaigned in key states to gain delegates and increase voter turnout in their primaries. But this presidential election is unlike any other in recent history. Thousands of voters of color have been denied access to the ballot box due to restrictive state election laws. Why? In part, because the United States Constitution lacks an explicit statement securing every American citizen’s right to vote.

The right to vote has been reduced to a privilege state legislatures only grant to some citizens, but not all. This year, 16 states enforced new voter restrictions, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. These restrictions include:

  1. reduced access to the ballot box through decreased early voting and same day registration, and
  2. increased requirement for voter identification and proof of citizenship.

These provisions, combined with explicit biases against voters of color at local polling stations, have created severe barriers to the ballot – particularly for voters of color.

Voting restrictions directly affect voter registration and ballot access amongst people of color. Of the 13 Super Tuesday states, four enforced new voter restriction laws including Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas. Some Super Tuesday voters of color were illegally denied provisional ballots, while others were told they could not vote if they did not speak English.

The March 15 primaries presented even more barriers for voters of color. There are 218,000 registered voters in North Carolina who do not have the required identification to vote after the state enacted a voter ID law requirement in 2013. Key battleground state Florida has the worst disenfranchisement laws for people with prior felony convictions in the country, wherein one in four Black Floridians are banned from the ballet box because of prior convictions (ranging from prison to parole, probation to post-sentence). These voter exclusion practices are racial injustices. To denounce the racial aspects of these laws is a farce.
Most Americans think we all have an equal right to vote, but this is simply untrue. Americans in all 50 states lack standardized voting rights because the U.S. Constitution does not have provisions set to protect us from state-specific voting policies. The right to vote is never stated affirmatively in our nation’s most powerful legal document: the constitution.

Without federal provisions on voting laws, interpreting the right to vote – and who it includes or excludes – is left in the hands of state legislatures, bureaucrats and the judiciary. Therefore, each state can determine who is qualified to vote in the 2016 election and who is not.

Voting should not an arduous process; it should be an attainable civil right. How can we expect voters of color to feel validated in our democracy when they have been systematically silenced by state legislatures for decades? We can start by making the right to vote affirmative in our constitution – for voters of color, and for all.


Judith Browne Dianis is a co-director of Advancement Project.