Voting Rights Act Turns 50 Amid Uncertain Future
This Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most landmark pieces of federal Civil Rights legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law on August 6th, 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. The act sought to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and resulted in the immediate decrease of racial barriers and discrimination in voting. Previous to the passage of this landmark bill, the dark legacy of slavery had continued on through the existence of Jim Crow laws, also known as legalized segregation, and disenfranchisement of racial minorities by state and local governments.
For nearly 48 years following the implementation of the VRA, the act proved itself to be one of the most effective pieces of Civil Rights legislation ever implemented. The law successfully ended the practice of local and state governments imposing superficially “race blind” barriers such as literacy tests, poll taxes, property-ownership requirements, character tests, and other measures to prevent racial minorities from voting and gaining political power. As the New York Times recently remarked after the passage of the VRA, “black voter registration and turnout soared, as did the number of black officials.”
Fast forward to 2010, a year in which low voter turnout fueled a Republican wave that flipped 11 Democratic-controlled state legislatures to Republican. In that year, Republicans launched an all-out assault on voting rights, reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws dictating voter registration in the mid-20th century. All across the country, Republican legislatures began passing laws in order to restrict access to the ballot. They began eliminating same-day registration, dismantling early voting, disqualifying more ballots, and enacting new restrictions required certain photo IDs to vote. Invoking the specter of a faux-voter fraud threat (data shows that very little voter fraud occurs throughout the U.S.), they methodically and purposefully began a campaign to disenfranchise millions of racial minorities, students, the poor, women, and many other groups who have become less and less supportive of the Republican party in recent decades.
Then in June of 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the VRA, a provision which prevented parts of the country with a history of racial discrimination against voters from approving changes to its election laws without approval from the federal government. The 5-4 decision narrowly passed along ideological lines. In the Majority, Chief Justice John Roberts carefully stated that the coverage formula which defined what areas must obtain permission from the federal government, was based on 40 year old data and thus was outdated, obsolete, and unconstitutional. Even in the court’s opinion “[the ruling] took care to avoid ruling on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act” and that “Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare [Section 4] unconstitutional.” Justice Ginsberg dissented in part by saying, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away an umbrella in a rainstorm because you're not getting wet."
In the following year, dozens of states passed restrictive laws in order to prevent millions of Americans from exercising their right to vote. While there has been limited success undoing these voter ID laws in the courts, not enough has been done to remedy the systematic plot to disenfranchise Americans. In Congress, Republican leadership has stalled bipartisan legislation which would close the preclearance loophole and strengthen the VRA.
As progressives we must forcefully reject Republican efforts to unconstitutionally deny millions of Americans’ right to vote. It is a moral imperative that we go on the offensive and expand access to the ballot box whenever and wherever possible. California and Oregon have led the way in recent months, passing bills that would automatically register every citizen to vote through their DMV information. Increasing access to the ballot box through the DMV in California and Oregon alone is estimated to add between 7-8 million new voters to the rolls. Just yesterday, California announced it was reversing a policy preventing felons from voting which would add up to 45,000 additional voters to the rolls.
It’s time we show that efforts by Republicans to reinstate a racist chapter of our country’s past have ignited a stronger and morally just movement that will spread to every corner of the union. We must take the efforts that have begun in California and Oregon and spread them, state by state, in legislatures across the country- regardless of Party control. While Congress lies marred in gridlock and Republicans attempt to force their backward agenda of disenfranchisement in the interim, it is our moral prerogative to open the doors of democracy to all Americans who wish to participate.