HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Pamiel Gaskin remembers when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law. She was just a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin and couldn't vote yet because the minimum age required to cast your ballot at the time was 21 years old.
Still, she spent a significant amount of time knocking on doors with her sorority sisters to encourage and help people register to vote. It was a passion she inherited from her family, who often did what they could to improve votership and break down barriers to the polls in their communities.
"Up until that time, if you were African American, you had to pay poll tax to vote, which is really like paying to vote. Poll tax was anywhere from $2 to $4. If my memory serves me correctly, a loaf of bread was about 27 cents at the time. So a poll tax of $2 was a lot to people who didn't make a lot of money, which were mostly African Americans and Hispanics," Gaskin said.
Even after the last group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas received word on June 19, 1865 that they had been emancipated, things didn't change overnight. African Americans still had to fight for basic rights and freedoms, such as voting.
"Simply having that announcement from the General did not change any dynamics in many people's lives. After the 13th Amendment was ratified that eliminated slavery as an institutional structure, it did not automatically translate in terms of political power," said Dr. Annie Johnson Benifield, retired professor of social science from Lone Star College-Tomball.
Congress tried taking federal action by ratifying the 15th Amendment in 1870, which granted Black men the right to vote. But in the years following, Jim Crow laws began emerging at the state level, enacting policies like grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and poll taxes to deter Black Americans from casting their ballot.
"The grandfather clause said that you could only vote if your grandfather had voted prior to slavery. That's one of a whole series of machinations put into play and used to disenfranchise people and preclude them from engaging in the political process," Benifield said.
She added, "Examples of literacy tests were questions like, 'How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?' or 'How many grains of sand are there in this jar?' My father-in-law tells the story about when he was asked to name all the statewide elected officials in Alabama. So it was subjective and even people who had advanced-level degrees could not pass the test."
Advocates say the U.S. has made tremendous strides as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 overturned many of the country's racist voting restrictions. But Miguel Rivera with the Texas Civil Rights Project believes the fight for voting rights still has a long way to go, explaining that restrictive barriers for people of color still exist to this day. They just come in different forms.
"Following the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which happened in 2013, Texas no longer had to submit changes to its voting rules to the federal government for oversight. It was allowed to just make up whatever election rules they wanted moving forward. Texas ended up passing one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country," Rivera said.
Another controversial piece of Texas voting legislation is Senate Bill 1, which passed in 2021. It bans overnight early voting hours and drive-thru voting, tightens up voting-by-mail rules, and sets new criminal penalties for voter assistance. These were all options offered to voters in Harris County, the largest county in Texas during the 2020 election.
"To maintain political power comes as a cost. If you expand the electorate, you have more people engaging and you can't hold onto it. No one willfully gives up political power. With a change in demographics here in the state of Texas and as a nation, you can see the impetus to main power at all costs," Benifield said.
The Republican-led bill came from unsubstantiated security concerns after Donald Trump lost his re-election bid in the 2020 presidential race. Democrats argue conservatives are creating laws for problems that don't exist and will make it harder for communities of color to vote.
Gaskin, who is a self-proclaimed super voter, experienced hurdles under SB 1. She said it took her three tries to get her voting registration approved last year, due to outdated forms on the county's website and discrepancies in the information she was being asked to provide.
The experience was frustrating for Gaskin and she feels the new legislation is a way to suppress voters in marginalized communities.
"I believe the real intent is for these representatives to pick their voters, not for voters to pick their representatives. It goes along with gerrymandering and where I live, I've been bounced between two congressional districts four times in the last ten years," Gaskin said.
Rivera said his organization filed a lawsuit shortly after SB1 passed and they are currently in litigation. He shared that he and his colleagues at the TCRP spend a lot of time in Austin during the Texas legislative sessions, fighting bills that they believe would make it harder for communities of color to vote. One example he gave was HB 1600, which would require citizens to provide proof of citizenship upon registration.
"It doesn't explain exactly what constitutes proof of citizenship. But we can assume that a U.S. passport would be one of them, which can be expensive and require a whole day's worth of activities to obtain. So these are ideas being proposed within our legislature that follow the same line of instituting poll taxes without outright calling it that," he said.
While advocates challenge some of these policies, they're also focused on guiding people in underserved communities through every step of the voting process, from registration to casting their ballot.
"We have to work harder to help people understand that casting a ballot determines the allocation of resources and who gets to make the public policies that affect your life," said Benifield, who now serves as the president for the League of Women Voters in Houston.
Joshua Martin is a younger voter, who's made it a priority to vote in every election since he became of eligible age. But he knows he's not of the norm. According to a post-election report by Ryan Data & Research, young voters only made up 11 percent of roughly 8.1 million people who casted a ballot in 2022. That's down from 16 percent in 2020 and 13 percent in 2018.
Martin currently serves as the student body president at the University of Houston and has been a part of efforts to help get more college students registered to vote. As a political science major and someone who aspires to run for office one day, he hopes to inspire and motivate other young adults to become engaged with the political process.
"I think that a lot of these hot topics you're seeing right now hit home to people who are becoming of voting age. You think about gun control, lots of these people turning 18 have been in situations where they haven't felt safe on their own school campus," Martin said.
He went on to say, "You have a lot of people fired up, ready to go and make real change. I think you're going to see lots of different people of younger age running in these different elections, whether it's your city or municipal elections, or your state elections or your federal elections, because they want to make sure that our next generation has a seat at the table whenever these key decisions are being made."
At 76 years old, Gaskin still participates in efforts to improve votership in her communities. It's something she didn't think she would still have to do at this age, but she remains optimistic about the future of voting rights and the next generation of activists.
"My optimism is that these young people are going to continue to carry this mantle. I'm sad that these young people still have to fight the same fights I had growing up against oppression and suppression. I believe these young people will take it to the next level and work towards having their voices and vision represented by our elected officials," Gaskin said.
The report is part of "Our America: Hidden Stories," a special by ABC Owned Television Stations featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and ABC OTV's race and culture reporters across the country.
Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 Project, a docuseries that reframes our country's history through a lens of race by examining the history of slavery and how this past continues to affect our communities today.
To understand the depth of impact slavery has had in all sectors of society, we turn to the power of local storytelling. Hannah-Jones joined forces with ABC Owned Television Station Race and Culture reporters to shed light on these complex, multi-faceted issues, such as voting rights, capitalism, the emotion of fear, the legacy of music, maternal healthcare, justice, and race.
The full special will air on ABC13 on Sunday, May 28 at 12:30 p.m. It can also be viewed here.