September is National Voting Rights Month. This month, the U.S. Congress will address a bill aimed to restore integrity and fairness to the voting process.
People calling for greater restrictions on the voting process claim rampant voter fraud and stolen elections. Our country’s history, however, reveals a concerted effort to disenfranchise minority voters.
To correct this wrong, Congress must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
This country purports to be a land of fairness, justice and equality, where our elected representatives act in the best interests of those they govern. The United States prides itself on being an exporter of democracy. At home, however, the right of all citizens to an equal voice in our government has been eroding. A review of our country’s history shows that we have only grudgingly allowed minorities to have a voice in government.
King George III did not listen to the colonists’ call for just and fair treatment. In recounting the king’s numerous abuses, the writers of the Declaration of Independence described him as a despot and tyrant. The revolutionists declared that it was the duty of the government to ensure that citizens were not deprived of their God-given rights. Primary among those rights was the right to have a voice in the rules that govern their lives.
It took a civil war, however, for African Americans to be given a voice in government.
In 1877, Reconstruction ended and, with it, the occupation of former Confederate states by federal troops, an occupation necessary to ensure that African Americans had unencumbered access to the ballot.
There is much evidence, post-Reconstruction, that Southern states could not be trusted to enforce voting rights for all citizens. With no monitors, states in the South adopted rules that impeded the right to vote for African Americans.
Tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes were implemented. Mississippi went further and, in its constitution of 1890, prohibited African Americans from voting. Lynchings and other forms of violence and intimidation were prevalent.
An organized demand by African Americans for rights equal to those of white citizens resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Key provisions were a nationwide ban on voter discrimination on the basis of race; the requirement of pre-clearance of any changes in voting rules by states that had a proven history of voter discrimination; and a formula to determine whether a state had a history of voter discrimination.
Not surprisingly, white politicians were reluctant to give up their power. States passed laws designed to limit minority voting, such as gerrymandering; creating at-large, rather than single-member, districts; requiring voter ID; disenfranchising ex-felons; and restricting early and absentee voting.
In his book “Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” Ari Berman details these efforts to suppress voting by minorities.
Shortly before the 2000 presidential election, Florida used a flawed system to purge names from the voter registration rolls. Twelve-thousand primarily minority registered voters were not allowed to cast their ballots, some because they had been marked “deceased” on the voter roll. Sophisticated methods such as those in Florida are used to prevent minorities from participating in a political process former President Ronald Reagan called “the crown jewel of American liberties.”
What many consider the death knell of the 1965 Voting Rights Act came from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. By striking down Section 4 of the act (the formula used to determine history of discrimination), the Supreme Court effectively invalidated Section 5, which required federal permission for states with a “history of discrimination” to change voting rules. The result is that minorities now have little recourse to protest discrimination in their right to vote.
Berman writes that, after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, “395 new voting restrictions were introduced in 49 states from 2011 to 2015.”
States continue to pass laws restricting voting rights, although polls conducted in June and July 2021 reveal that the majority of Americans favor protection of this sacred, fundamental right.
According to Pew Research, 57% of Americans believe that the right to vote is fundamental and should not be restricted. A Monmouth poll finds that most Americans want easier early voting.
An NPR/PBS/Marist poll reveals more voters are concerned with access to the ballot box than with fraud.
History proves that the right of African Americans and other minorities to the ballot will not be protected under the Voting Rights Act as it currently exists. Our nation must restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, giving everyone a voice in our government.
I urge you to contact your federal representatives and demand that they vote for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.