Voting rights expert Gilda Daniels discusses voter suppression, new book during speaker series

“The vote is a connection to go from protest to power”

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Gilda Daniels

By Sara Abdelouahed, Collegian Staff

The University of Massachusetts’ School of Public Policy hosted voting rights expert Gilda Daniels on Monday for a talk titled “The Fight to Vote for the Right to Vote,” where she spoke about the history of voter suppression and its prevalence today.

Daniels, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, recently published a book on voter suppression titled Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America.” She also served as the deputy chief in the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Voting Section, for both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

The event, which occurred as part of the School of Public Policy’s speaker series, began with a few words from David Mednicoff, department chair and associate professor of Middle Eastern studies and public policy, who introduced Daniels and offered background into the series.

“The Fight to Vote for the Right to Vote” is the second event in the department’s speaker series for this academic year. With the upcoming November election on the minds of many, Mednicoff said the department wanted to bring in a speaker “with a lot of significant experience to help guide us through some of the challenges” of voting.

During her hour-long presentation, Daniels provided a summarized history of voter suppression followed by an explanation on how and why it continues today, drawing on specific examples in states across the country.

She prefaced her talk by discussing her motivation in writing her book, which was to “connect the dots” of the voting process history in America.

“As a child, I loved working with these connect-the-dot pages,” she said. “I think it’s important to connect these dots to history, as well as what we’re experiencing contemporaneously.”

According to Daniels, the first dot to consider is the country’s “paradoxical democracy.” These are ideas America was founded upon, “from saying all men are created equal to only some people count in regards to how we vote.”

When the 15th Amendment made it illegal to discriminate based on race, new “disenfranchising devices” against people of color arose. “The poll tax, . . . literacy tests [and] grandfather clauses,” which only allowed an individual to vote if their grandfather would have been able to vote prior to the passage of the 15th Amendment, were “so effective in their pursuits” that nearly 100,000 fewer Black men were registered to vote after their implementation, she said.

Although these seem like purely “historical barriers to the ballot box,” Daniels said “they have some contemporary cousins.”

The mechanisms appear as voter identification laws, voter deception and intimidation, felon disenfranchisement and proof of citizenship laws. They are newfound ways to do what was done in the early 1900s, Daniels said.

“They deter, they thwart, they prevent, in many respects, people of color in particular, but also young people, college students [and] elderly people,” she said.

Laura Shah, a second-year masters of public policy candidate at the University of California Riverside, attended the virtual event. She found the talk to be very “insightful” and “eye opening” to the realities of voter suppression today.

“I find it interesting how history seems to repeat itself,” Shah said.

The University of California Riverside’s School of Public Policy is virtually partnered with its UMass equivalent this semester. Alasdair Roberts, the director of UMass’ School of Public Policy, said the schools “agreed that we would share events since everyone is online.”

“It is really easy to do events online that a lot of people can participate in,” Roberts said.

Daniels concluded her talk by emphasizing the importance of voting and offering advice to those looking to get involved in making a change. “The vote is a connection to go from protest to power,” she said.

As for advice, she said to “educate, legislate, litigate [and] participate.”

Daniels provided suggestions for each category, such as educating oneself on the voting process and rules, remaining aware of and involved with local legislative efforts to change the law, partnering with organizations that are working on making change and participating in any means, whether as poll workers or registering others to vote.

“We can . . . continue this fight to vote, and certainly move from protest to power.”

Sara Abdelouahed can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @AbdelouahedSara.