After 50 Years, Time To Renew The Fight For Voting Rights

Isaiah J. Poole

Don’t think of the ceremonies that will take place this weekend on the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. as a commemoration of a victory won. Let’s use them instead as a call to renew fight for voting rights that are being eroded under a sustained conservative assault.

Consider this: Since 2010, 22 states have passed restrictions on the right to vote, affecting nearly half of the nation’s population, according to “The State of Voting in 2014” chapter in the latest annual Democracy and Justice report by the Brennan Center for Justice. And that half was more likely to include voters who were brown or black: Of the 11 states with the highest African-American voter turnout in 2008, seven of those states put new voting restrictions in place, according to the Brennan Center. So did nine of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth. As a general rule, the higher the percentage of black or Hispanic voters in a Republican-led state, the more likely the state would have restrictive voting laws.

Welcome to Jim Crow, circa 2015.

These restrictions often don’t stop at voter-ID requirements, which disproportionately harm low-income people, students, seniors and people with disabilities, and have a demonstrable discriminatory racial impact. In the past three years, in response to successful drives to register African-American voters in 2008, the Brennan Center found that nine states also passed laws making it harder for citizens to register to vote. Eight states passed laws cutting back on early voting days and hours. Three states made it harder to restore voting rights to people with past criminal convictions, another measure that disproportionately affects African Americans.

Then there are at-large voting schemes used by counties and municipalities to make it difficult, if not impossible, for communities of color to elect candidates who would represent their interests. Think Progress this week highlights the struggle of Hispanics in several cities to overcome these at-large voting set-ups. “The tactic used to be popular in the South to discriminate against neighborhoods with large African-American communities but is now targeting a new threat: Latinos,” the website reports, noting that one such arrangement, in Yakima, Wash., was struck down as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act.

This is a national disgrace, but it is not getting the national attention and the sense of urgency that it deserves.

The rush to dismantle the hard-won gains of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, led by the progeny of the Confederacy, underscores the travesty of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling invalidating Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. That ruling eliminated the requirement that states with a history of racial discrimination have changes to their election laws precleared by the Justice Department, so their racial impact can first be assessed.

With that ruling, the burden shifted to prospective voters to prove racial intent, instead of states and counties to prove nondiscriminatory impact. It opened the door wide to measures that appear superficially race-neutral but are anything but in the real world.

That’s why the Voting Rights Amendment of 2015, sponsored by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), must be a top-priority item for this session of Congress. The measure would restore and update the ability of a federal court to review the voting laws of jurisdictions with a pattern and practice of discrimination.

But the 50 years of history since Martin Luther King Jr. led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge has taught us that a voting rights law, however buttressed against the damage done by conservatives in courts and legislatures, is not enough.

A country serious about the right to vote as a cornerstone of democracy would enshrine that right in the Constitution. It is true that the 15th Amendment declares that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But today’s dividing lines are not only race; it is students who are told that their student IDs might be good enough for a beer at the bar or even a purchase at a gun show, but not for access to a voting booth. It is low-wage workers who can ill afford to take a day off from work and spend several hours’ worth of wages in order to jump barriers to the ballot. It is church-goers who are inspired to vote by a Sunday sermon but are denied the opportunity to act on that inspiration by registering to vote at the church fellowship hall afterward.

That’s why Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are leading the “Protect Your Vote” campaign, with the goal of ratifying a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.

The 15th Amendment did not prevent the use of poll taxes and literacy tests against black people who tried to vote, but it was the foundation upon which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. Making the right to vote explicit in the Constitution is ultimately the best way to arm ourselves against this new wave of voter restrictions. And that should be the ultimate destination of the march beyond Selma and Montgomery.

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