As the 57th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act nears, advocates say voting rights have once again come under attack, especially for African Americans.
The Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, sought to prohibit racial discrimination.
But since then, advocates say some Supreme Court decisions and new laws have put barriers in place for minorities looking to cast ballots. Various bills that have been proposed to get rid of those perceived barriers have stalled.
Linda Thornton Thomas, president of the Prince George’s County NAACP branch, suggested putting voting rights within the U.S. Constitution.
We have all sorts of these rights we live with but the most important part of our rights is voting,” she said. “Some people say, ‘Nothing will change.’ It may not but at least you have a voice and can do something about it. Doing nothing presents no changes. Voting is one of the few fundamental rights where everyone can have a say in what they want.”
Prior to the Voting Rights Act being signed nearly 57 years ago by Johnson, Blacks traveled to the ballot box and selected officials who sought municipal, county, state and federal offices.
In the early 1960s, several southern states including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas passed laws such as a poll tax and literacy tests which made it more difficult for Blacks to vote.
The late Rep. John Lewis, then a 25-year-old activist, led hundreds of people over the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to peacefully protest voting discrimination and the murder of Jimmie Lee Johnson, a 26-year-old church deacon and activist.
White state troopers and local police, some on horseback, greeted Lewis and others with nightsticks and tear gas. That day, March 6, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Five months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
“Today is a triumph of freedom – as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield,” Johnson said to Congress after signing the bill. “Yet, to seize the meaning of this day, we must recall darker times.”
Did Supreme Court Bring Darkness Back Into Voting Rights?
Based on the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 that restricted the U.S. Justice Department to assess and preapprove any election changes from states with a history of discrimination. This allowed states to immediately alter, and which voting advocates say, approve restrictive voting laws.
Then in July 2021, a vote by the majority conservative Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act to ban the collection of absentee ballots (except by a relative or caregiver) and throw out ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
The lawsuit came from Arizona Republicans and the Republican National Committee who argued the court’s decision prevents voter fraud. It now rests with Congress to approve voting rights legislation.
In 2021, Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-Maryland) sponsored comprehensive legislation called “For the People Act” to expand voting rights and reduce money in politics. And while the House approved it last year the Senate – which remains evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans – rejected it.
Two other laws still remain under discussion: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
The House approved the two acts both of which died in January on the Senate floor due to a Republican filibuster, which stymied previous voting rights bills from passing.
“Unfortunately, the Senate is a roadblock to that legislation,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), a longtime colleague and friend of Lewis, said in an interview Monday, Aug. 1.
“Voting has been central to an individual’s ability to participate in democracy and having their voice heard . . . on policy and future actions that their country would take,” he said. “John Lewis knew that was central. He knew it was central to the dignity of an American. Without the vote, you were not a full American. You were a marginal American.”
‘Elections Matter’ – All Elections
The Lewis act would reestablish the “preclearance” law for the Justice Department to review any voting changes made by states, especially those with history of racial discrimination.
The Freedom act seeks to strengthen national standards for voting options and eliminate barriers against Black and Latino voters, undocumented citizens who pay taxes and those with disabilities.
Glenn Ivey, who won the Democratic nomination to represent the 4th Congressional District with portions of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, said those two measures are necessary to protect voting rights for people of color.
For instance, the GOP-controlled legislature in Texas approved voting measures last year including: requiring voters to show a driver’s license or write down the last four digits of their Social Security number on a ballot; ban distribution of unsolicited mail-in ballots; and poll watchers “may not be denied free movement where election activity is occurring ….”
A decision has not been made in a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department last year against the state of Georgia for its newly-approved law that rejects civic groups and others to give food or water to voters waiting in line.
“The John Sarbanes bill and others are aimed at refurbishing the voting rights act and providing additional protections,” Ivey said. “But in the meantime, we’ve got to win these fights in the state legislatures and make sure that we block efforts to roll back the voting rights that we earned during the civil rights era and beyond. We have to fight this on all fronts and use every angle that we can.”
Because of the current filibuster rules in the Senate, at least 10 Republicans must agree with the 50 Democrats to approve any voting measures.
Vice President Kamala Harris, attending a National Urban League conference last month at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest, stressed voters need to elect “two” Democratic senators to ensure passage of the John Lewis and Freedom acts.
“We can pass that federal legislation to deal with the fact that you’ve got these extremist, so-called-leaders in places like Georgia, Florida, Texas, who are intentionally trying to make it more difficult for people to vote so they don’t vote,” Harris said. “I would encourage all of the local leaders to remind people of why these elections matter because they do.”