50 Years After Voting Rights Act, A New Fight for Democracy Demanded

On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, proponents of the landmark legislation are saying the law not only deserves to be celebrated for its historic achievements but must also be defended from an ongoing and coordinated attack against the principles it embodies.

Across the country on Thursday—including at a rally in Washington, D.C. at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial—an array of civil rights advocates, lawmakers, historians, and progressive voices championed the importance of the VRA as they issued a warning that its bedrock principles of voter access and racial justice are under direct assault by forces seeking political gain by subverting democracy, preventing voter registration, and keeping people from the polls.

As Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who marched alongside King and was present when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the law, said in a tweet on Thursday, “Our vote is the foundation of democracy. A just and fair society requires the removal of any and all barriers to the ballot box.”

Signed in to law on August 6, 1965, the VRA is widely considered—alongside the Civil Rights Act of 1964—one of the key achievements of the movement for racial and social justice which shook the established order in the early 1960s. However, half a century later, those who cherish what the law was able to achieve say those gains are now under serious threat.

Central to the current debate about voting rights are two concurrent developments. First, a slew of state laws passed in recent years—almost exclusively by Republican-controlled legislatures— have imposed new burdens on voters that are disproportionately and negatively impacting minority voters, the elderly, young students, and other vulnerable populations like the poor and disabled. And second, a widely criticized 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, known as Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down key provisions contained in the Voting Rights Act itself. That decision, critics say, has acted as endorsement for further voter restrictions, especially in southern states freed from federal oversight previously mandated by Section 5 of the VRA.

Julie Ebenstein, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, explained to the Huffington Post how before Section 5 was struck down states were compelled “to show that laws are not discriminatory before they implement them, [but] now we have a situation where plaintiffs need to show that laws are discriminatory and are sprinting to do that before people’s rights are violated in an election.”

And as Theodore M. Shaw, former head of the NAACP and currently a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, explained in a blog post this week, the issue “boils down to whether, as a nation, we still need federal protections against the possibility of racial discrimination in voting.” Shaw continues:

In a New York Times op-ed on Thursday, Ari Berman, a political correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of the new book, “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” describes how the VRA has faced opposition since its inception, but says the crisis of voter disenfranchisement has escalated dramatically over the last fifteen years:

What’s at stake, argue critics of the Right’s more recent voter-suppression tactics, is nothing short of American democracy itself.

“Democracy is not a state,” write Rep. Lewis and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in an op-ed published Thursday in the Los Angeles Times. “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to move this nation toward a more perfect union. There is no power more fundamental to democracy than the right to vote.”

As part of their effort to restore voting rights, Lewis and Leahy introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act in June. If enacted, the law would restore the vital protections lost in the Shelby decision. “As legislators,” they write in their op-ed, “we must see the changes to voting rights sweeping the land as a call to action. […] On this 50th anniversary, rather than pay tribute to the act’s original passage, we must fight for its restoration.”

In a similar vein, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, on Thursday championed the importance of the VRA while also touting a pair of new bills he introduced on Wednesday which seek to expand voter participation.

One of the two bills would require states to automatically register all eligible individuals to vote when they turn 18 years old, a proposal which has garnered the support of various voter advocacy organizations and labor unions, including the Brennan Center for Justice, Dēmos, Common Cause, the Communications Workers of America, and others. 

The second bill would establish Election Day as a national holiday as a way to improve poll access and voter turnout. “We should be doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process,” said Sanders. “Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote.” Such a holiday would not “be a cure-all,” Sanders acknowledged, but said it would show a renewed “national commitment” to voter engagement and foundational principles.

“If we believe in a vibrant democracy,” he said, “we want to have the highest voter turnout in the world.”

Acknowledging the profound need for a new slate of voting rights laws, Berman is among those lamenting how current political conditions in Washington, D.C. are making legislative progress nearly impossible. Referencing the joint bill introduced by Lewis and Leahy, Berman said that in the nearly two months since it was first filed, the bill has gone nowhere fast.

“On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act,” he wrote, “Congress won’t even schedule a hearing.”