By: Caiti Anderson
As an editor of this blog, I keep a constant eye out for election law events to report. Fortunately (for both the blog and myself), I am exposed to brilliant thinkers and passionate advocates. On October 27th, I attended David Baugh’s excellent lecture, “Lynching, Literacy Tests & ID Cards: The Suppression of Minority Voters,” hosted by the Wolf Law Library. Mr. Baugh is a Richmond-based criminal trial lawyer dedicated to protecting and defending the Constitutional rights of all. Some of his career highlights include representing members of al-Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan in high profile civil rights cases. The American Bar Association, Virginia State Bar, and Old Dominion Bar Association have all recognized Mr. Baugh for his fearless advocacy. He lives by the maxim he related during the lecture; “Protect the rights of people whom you don’t agree with, because when you do, you defend the rights of America.”
Mr. Baugh began the lecture by discussing the Constitution and the idea that all people are given certain rights. However, the Framers used a limited definition of personhood to exclusively include wealthy, white males. Women were not equal, and slaves were not even human. The struggle to increase inclusivity, Mr. Baugh argued, is matched by the desire of those in power to maintain the status quo. In their great fear of a slave revolt, Southern states implemented the slave codes, which were a precursor to the “black codes” of the Jim Crow era.
Although the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and the Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote, lawmakers throughout the South quickly worked to disenfranchise and suppress former slaves. With the 1901 Virginia Constitutional Convention, lawmakers “specifically designed a way to disenfranchise” black and poor white voters by introducing the poll tax. Additionally, most Southern states introduced literacy tests around this period. Mr. Baugh brought in copies of the Louisiana literacy test and asked us all to try it. Unsurprisingly, the test is virtually impossible, even for someone with over seventeen years of formal education. (No, I did not pass the test.) These systematic measures, coupled with the “terrorism of the K.K.K.,” effectively disenfranchised blacks until the Voting Rights Act.
Mr. Baugh concluded the lecture by illuminating his concerns with the current state of voting rights in the United States. He cited the sharp increase in prison populations since the 1980s as another method of depriving minorities of their right to vote. Furthermore, he challenged the idea that voter identification is necessary to combat voter fraud. Voter fraud, he asserted, is extremely rare. Instead, voter identification laws are “the new calculated way to remove people from the voting box.” Although this remains a controversial subject, Mr. Baugh encouraged the audience to go and research voter identification laws and form our own objective opinions on the subject. “If you’re going to be a citizen,” he stated, “you have to vote and you have to stay informed about the issues.” Mr. Baugh’s passionate lecture acted as a reminder to stay alert to how the past impacts the present, and how we can effectively become involved and positive American citizens.