Black Votes Matter: Pennsylvania’s Impressive History of Access to the Franchise

By: Ebony Thomas

Today, Pennsylvania’s voting laws are among the least restrictive of any state in granting its citizens access to the ballot. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that supports the voting rights of people with past felony convictions. Moreover, Pennsylvania has always been a leader in providing its citizens, especially its black citizens, access to its franchise.

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As early as the late 18th century, black freemen in Pennsylvania had the right to vote-well before the passage of the civil rights amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th). These gains were short-lived, as black freemen lost their suffrage rights in 1838 when the Pennsylvania constitution was amended. These freemen did not regain their right to the franchise until 1870 with the ratification of the United States Constitution’s 15th Amendment. During their disenfranchisement, blacks still fought for suffrage by petitioning and protesting for the Pennsylvania legislature to reinstate their rights. Yet their efforts fell on deaf ears. It was commonly held that apathy among black freemen and rising racial tensions between blacks and whites lost them their right to vote in Pennsylvania. Surprisingly, once blacks regained their right to vote in 1870, Pennsylvania did not impose any barriers on the franchise, in contradistinction to other states, which imposed barriers like the poll tax and literacy tests that ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 played a key role in many states for minorities to gain access to the ballot, none of Pennsylvania’s counties were covered jurisdictions. As such, prior to 1965, there is little evidence that minorities in Pennsylvania encountered barriers such as literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, and other common mechanisms that impaired blacks’ right to the franchise. It was not until 2012 that Pennsylvania enacted questionable discriminatory legislation that called for voting ID laws; later invalidated in 2014 (by a Pennsylvania commonwealth judge) for being burdensome on Pennsylvania residents, especially the disabled, elderly, minority communities, and low-income residents.

Blacks votes have always mattered but never more so than during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in which blacks had a higher voter turnout than whites. As some observers see it, many states passed legislation with discriminatory effects on minority voters in response to the unprecedented exercise of the black vote. Two states in particular have recently made headlines with their voting laws. Both Texas and North Carolina  implemented voting ID laws that made it harder for minorities to gain access to the ballots. Federal judicial intervention occurred in both states culminating with the Supreme Court of the United States declining to reinstate the 2013 law that required voters to show identification at the polls. The Pennsylvania voter ID laws, unlike North Carolina, never arrived at the Supreme Court, but were invalidated by a Pennsylvania judge who deemed the voter ID requirements unconstitutional.

This invalidation highlights both the importance that Pennsylvania’s judiciary accords the franchise and its refusal to allow any law or requirement to infringe on that right of any of their residents to exercise his or her suffrage.

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