It is with great distress that I find the dangerous illusion that I have held, asserting that my right to vote is guaranteed by not only the 15th Amendment but also the VRA, to be false.
I think of this as I, and thousands of civil rights advocates, commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events of 1965 that led to the Voting Rights Act (VRA)- Bloody Sunday and President Lyndon Johnson’s speech calling Congress to enact a voting rights bill by invoking the cry of the civil rights movement,“We shall overcome”.
The Voting Rights Act is an act that was signed into law on August 6,1965 by President Â Johnson, that aimed to overcome legal barriers that stopped African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United Â States.
However, in 2013 in the court case of Shelby County v. Holder, five conservative judges on the Supreme Court effectively gutted these laws, arguing that we had moved “beyond racism.” Â As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote two years ago in a Supreme Court decision that destroyed the very core protections in the Voting Rights Act, the circumstances in 1965 Selma do not reflect “current conditions.”
This ruling had barely been announced when a large amount of laws designed to restrict voting were introduced in states across the country – gerrymandering, stacking and packing voting districts with black voters, voter ID laws, curtailing voting days, eliminating evening voting, ending same-day registration, making polling places remote or inadequate, forcing voters to wait hours to vote and more.
This is just like in 1870, when the 15th Amendment was ratified and across the south, states immediately set up seemingly neutral barriers to voting – poll taxes, literacy tests and more – that were used to disenfranchise black voters.
It took nearly a century, a civil rights movement, Bloody Sunday and other sacrifices, to pass the Voting Rights Act, and when the VRA was signed into law, it affirmed the right to vote throughout the country and suspended literacy tests on a nationwide basis.
This act included special rules that gave the Justice Department the right to pre-screen any changes to voting laws in states with a history of discrimination, and ban those that would have a discriminatory effect, even if they looked neutral on their face.
Though some of these new laws are harsher that others, and some are still in the courts, all of these changes to voting have the potential to do a lot of damage and bring us all backwards and not forward.
It is clear that these days the threat comes from campaigns that try to go back on the very hard fought victories of the last 50 years.
So true, the constitution very clearly prohibits discrimination in granting our “right to vote” Â based on a person’s race, sex or age via theÂ 15th,Â 19th andÂ 26thÂ Amendments. TheÂ 24thÂ Amendment also forbids disenfranchisement via poll taxes. But those protections are like a house with no foundation. States and other governments can and do disenfranchise individuals and groups of citizens. Â The sad reality is, despite the considerable progress made in the last five decades, we are still fighting to ensure voting rights for every American.
If even our Congress cannot honor the Voting Rights Act by updating it back to its original intent and promise, then we shall never overcome. Â With courage and conviction we can stop this trend and ensure voting rights continue in the future and we can get closer to the dream envisioned in the 60’s.