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Diversity Dialogue: True ballot-box ‘purity’ means no racist voting laws

By Jennifer S. Higgins

The recent wave of voting-restriction laws in the Sun Belt of the United States has brought to light why words and a thorough understanding of our nation’s history are necessary for us to continue to work toward creating a more perfect union.

In Texas, Rep. Briscoe Cain (shown above) was the main sponsor of Senate Bill 7, voting-restriction legislation whose purpose would be to punish voter fraud and preserve “the purity of the ballot box,” as prescribed in the Texas Constitution.

When questioned by fellow Texas Rep. Rafael Anchía (below) about the racist history of the phrase “purity of the ballot,” which was used during the Jim Crow era to justify the disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens deemed not fit to vote, the 36-year-old Cain claimed to not be aware. Anchía also spoke with purpose during his closing remarks opposing the bill: “We must rise in the spirit of the late congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis to make good trouble on this bill. … [and we will rise] against the big lie that SB 7 perpetuates.” (The language was removed from the bill; it passed May 7 by a Texas House vote of 78 to 64.)

According to Gregg Cantrell, a history professor at Texas Christian University, “appeals to ‘purity of the ballot’ helped deprive black Texans of their right to vote around the turn of the 20th century,” wrote Hannah Knowles for The Washington Post. Also noted in Knowles’ story, the argument for “ballot purity” eventually targeted other races, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Nina Perales.

Voting is a fundamental right for all citizens. These attempts to return to an era in which people were denied this fundamental right on the basis of the color of their skin will only serve to hurt our country and will most certainly not improve election integrity. 

The effort to create a more palatable version of Jim Crow laws demonstrates that some Americans have forgotten that in the mid-1800s, many employers advertised job openings noting “No Irish Need Apply.” Many have also forgotten that Americans of Italian descent were not considered white and through the early 1900s endured what’s been described as “racialized pariah status.” The focus on ethnic differences did not benefit the country then, nor do they do so now. 

To create a more perfect union, we need to focus on what unites and not divides us. An active and engaged citizenry moves us toward a more perfect union. The primary way for all citizens to be active and engaged is to have the right to vote without obstacles to that right.

Jennifer S. Higgins, AFTNJ’s treasurer since 2018, has been an active participant in Local 1904 since 2006.