Queer Eye beauty guru Jonathan Van Ness knows how to deliver a message. Just as he’s convinced heroes on his hit Netflix series to adopt a new skincare routine or chop off their hair, he’s encouraging citizens to make a voting plan ahead of the 2020 election. Van Ness narrates a video titled “Land of the Free, Home of Voter Suppression!” which outlines America’s history of voter suppression and underscores the power of heading to the polls.
“The U.S. has a pretty horrible track record for voting rights,” Van Ness states, recounting centuries of tactics used to suppress the vote, particularly for people of color. The video is part of Amazon Studios’ series #ALLINFORVOTING, which aims to educate voters, inspire them to cast a ballot, and encourage viewing of Stacey Abrams’ documentary All In: The Fight For Democracy.
From the United States’ founding, most states only allowed land-owning white men to vote, Van Ness explains, which amounted to only six percent of the population. “The early U.S. was super problematic,” he continues. “For example, in 1790, 700,000 out of 4 million people in the U.S. were Black slaves. By 1860, there were 4 million slaves. And of course, none of those slaves could vote. In fact, they had no rights at all.”
As Van Ness explains, the Civil War’s freeing of enslaved people and the passage of the 15th Amendment did not ensure equality. Thanks to the Ku Klux Klan’s voter intimidation and a variety of tactics like literacy tests required for Black voters, only three percent of Black people in the south were registered to vote in 1940. “Decades of voter suppression worked,” Van Ness says. “But what about everyone else? Well some women, as in only white women, were given the right to vote in 1920 after nearly 100 years of fierce activism. Native Americans didn’t receive the right to vote from all states until 1948. And most immigrants of Asian descent couldn’t become citizens and vote until 1952. Meanwhile, Black citizens are still locked out of the vote in the south.”
Enter the late civil rights leader John Lewis, whose work, along with thousands of other activists in the civil rights movement, led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That piece of legislation prohibited literacy tests, the denial of a person’s right to vote, and the dilution of the power of a person’s vote. While Black voter registration skyrocketed and Black politicians gained seats at the table, Van Ness says a path to the polls can still be filled with obstacles.
Politicians continue to use voter suppression techniques like re-drawing voter districts in their favor. They close and under-fund polling places and they pass voter ID and voter verification laws that disproportionately impact communities of color. And sometimes they just flat out purge marginalized people from the voting rolls like Brian Kemp did in the 2018 governor’s election in Georgia. Oh, and the Voting Rights Act? In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key provisions in a 5-4 decision. As a result, nearly 1700 voting locations have been closed across the South. And it’s not just people of color, people with criminal records and disabilities still have many barriers to the polls. Does all of this piss you off? It should.
Van Ness’s call to action implores viewers to get registered “and vote for some non-evil people who will fight for you.” With the 2020 presidential election less than two weeks away and myths about the voting process rampant, it’s never been more vital to exercise your civic duty.
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