Thursday, August 6 marks the 50-year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark piece of legislation was a milestone in the fight for civil rights and a great step forward in the advancement of our democracy. This important and popular law passed the House and Senate with the support of large majorities from both parties.
Unfortunately, some people would rather increase the power of the privileged few than defend voting rights. Right-wing groups like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been promoting legislative proposals which make it harder for minorities to register and vote. Sadly, those proposals have had some success at the state level.
Then there’s the Supreme Court. The Court’s conservative majority struck a blow against democracy in 2010 with its Citizens United decision. In 2013 it struck another blow, when it overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. That made it very difficult to step in and enforce voters’ rights under the Act.
It is an embarrassment that the Republican-led Congress, in order to preserve its majorities, has refused to consider legislation to repair that damage to the Voting Rights Act and will not act to fix our broken voting system.
We are facing a two-pronged attack on our democracy — unlimited money poured into the political process, paired with the systematic suppression of the vote.
These are two sides of the same coin.
Make no mistake: the billionaire class does not want Americans to vote. Billions of dollars are being funneled into our elections in a form of legalized bribery, even as American voters — especially minority voters — are being discouraged from voting. It is no wonder that government no longer works for ordinary Americans.
There is much more we must do to protect minority voters. In the shameful days of open segregation, “literacy” laws were used to suppress minority voting. Today, through other laws and actions — such as requiring voters to show photo ID, discriminatory drawing of Congressional districts, not allowing early registration or voting, and purging voter rolls — states are taking steps which have a similar effect.
The patterns are unmistakable. An MIT paper found that, nationally, African Americans waited twice as long to vote as whites. Wait times of as long as six or seven hours have been reported in some minority precincts, especially in “swing” states like Ohio and Florida.
This should offend the conscience of every American.
The fight for minority voting rights is a fight for justice. It is also inseparable from the struggle for democracy itself. When the votes of minorities are suppressed, it becomes easier for politicians who represent billionaires and corporations to win and hold elected office.
What can we do? Congress must restore the Voting Rights Act’s “pre-clearance” provision, which extended protections to minority voters in states where they were clearly needed. Then we must expand the Act’s scope so that every American, regardless of skin color or national origin, is able to vote freely.
I have introduced legislation to make Election Day a national holiday, but that’s just a start. We must make early voting an option for voters who work or study and need the flexibility to vote on evenings or weekends. We must make no-fault absentee ballots an option for all Americans.
Every American over 18 must be registered to vote automatically, so that students and working people can make their voices heard at the ballot box. We must put an end to discriminatory laws and the purging of minority-community names from voting rolls.
We need to make sure that there are sufficient polling places and poll workers to prevent long lines from forming at the polls anywhere. We need to fight dishonest practices that keep people from voting through deception or fear. We need to restore voting rights to people who have served their debt to society.
We must repeal Citizens United and take the political process back from the billionaire class. We must restore the Voting Rights Act and protect voters from attempts to disenfranchise them before the elections take place.
Above all, we need to remember the price that was paid for the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act was one of the great victories of the civil rights movement. Now, as then, change comes when the people demand it — in the voting booth, and on the streets in peaceful demonstrations. We must remind ourselves of what’s been achieved in the past, and resolve to do equally great things in the future.
We must remember that the struggle for our rights is not the struggle of a day, or a year, or a generation. It is the struggle of a lifetime, and one that must be fought by every generation. Our time to fight is now.