Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the monumental Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act ensured that no one would be barred from the right to vote based on the color of their skin. The right to vote is a civil right. Americans vote to elect people we believe will protect our rights and fight for what we believe in. For working Americans, who we elect impacts us workers and members of the middle class. No one, of any race, should be unfairly be kept from making their voice heard at the polls. Voting is how many of us fight against Right-to-Work and other legislation that sets workers back. It’s how we advocate for paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage, and a host of other policies that will lift workers up and help us provide a decent living for our families. This largely helped Black Americans to exercise the right to vote, especially in the South, where they faced obscure and discriminatory tests when attempting to register to vote.
Nine years before the VRA was signed, only about one-quarter of eligible black voters in the South were registered, in large part due to unfair literacy tests and other Jim Crow tactics.
The passage of the VRA also required seven states “with histories of black disenfranchisement to submit any future change in statewide voting law, no matter how small, for approval by federal authorities in Washington. No longer would the states be able to invent clever new ways to suppress the vote.”
President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the bill into law, called it “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.” This proved to be a true proclamation–by 1968, just three years after the Voting Rights Act became law, registration among black southerners had increased substantially, to 62 percent.
The VRA also enabled progressive legislators working to advance civil rights to build upon what the VRA promised:
“not just easing access to the ballot but finding ways to actively encourage voting, with new state laws allowing people to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles and public-assistance offices; to register and vote on the same day; to have ballots count even when filed in the wrong precinct; to vote by mail; and, perhaps most significant, to vote weeks before Election Day. All of those advances were protected by the Voting Rights Act, and they helped black registration increase steadily. In 2008, for the first time, black turnout was nearly equal to white turnout, and Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president.”
But since the historic election in 2008, conservative legislators have used the success of the VRA to advocate for the dismantling of several key pieces of it. Claiming “voter fraud” as their battle cry, Republicans who gained control in 11 state legislatures in 2010 took away early voting, “same-day registration, disqualified ballots filed outside home precincts and created new demands for photo ID at polling places.”
Then, in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelby County v. Holder to directly countermand “the Section 5 authority of the Justice Department to dispute any of these changes in the states Section 5 covered. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, declared that the Voting Rights Act had done its job, and it was time to move on.”
But the VRA can’t continue to “do its job” if its power continues to be chipped away. It’s imperative that we restore it. We cannot “move on” when racial hatred and injustice is still evident in cities across our country. Evidence that the black vote is still being suppressed is plentiful:
In her dissent of Shelby County v. Holder, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that, while studying the VRA’s reauthorization in 2006, “Congress found there were more D.O.J. objections between 1982 and 2004 (626) than there were between 1965 and the 1982 reauthorization (490).” She noted that in a majority of those objections, the Justice Department cited “calculated decisions to keep minority voters from fully participating in the political process.”
Thanks to the Shelby decision, North Carolina was able to pass a bill “that cut the state’s early-voting period nearly in half, taking away one of the two Sundays when black churches run highly effective ‘souls to the polls’ voting drives. It ended same-day registration and invalidated student IDs for voting.”
By cutting provisions of voting laws that protect voters from being disenfranchised, and enacting sections that unfairly affect the poor or minorities, our legislators are doing a disservice to America.
But there are people fighting back against intrusions on our voting rights. Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. regularly leads protesters joined by progressive lawmakers and familiar faces of the civil rights movement at Moral Monday events, speaking out against the attacks on the VRA. He has referred to the time since the Shelby decision as “our Selma”—adding that on the day of the decision, June 26, 2013, “we had less voting rights than they had on August 6, 1965.”
Reverend Barber and his congregation of supporters in the south and beyond continue to mobilize people who won’t back down threats to the VRA and all of its protections that ensure black, Latino, and people of races can exercise their right to vote. As union members and workers, we must do the same.