Forty-nine years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Nearly a century ago, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution stated, “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.” And nearly a century before that, our nation’s founding fathers set in motion the great experiment of American democracy by declaring that “all men are created equal.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a belated acknowledgment that even in America, our foundational ideals carry little weight if not protected by the rule of law. That’s why Section 2 of the 15th Amendment granted Congress the “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
And indeed, the codified language of the Voting Rights Act was able to achieve what the Reconstruction-era Congress and Thomas Jefferson could not. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act—and the civil rights movement from which they emerged—served as the catalyst for a dramatic increase in the opportunity for black Americans to participate in the democratic process.
For example, only 6.7 percent of eligible black Mississippians were registered to vote as of 1962; by 1969 that figure had reached 66.5 percent. Today, Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state.
The protections put in place by the Voting Rights Act were long overdue when they were passed, representative of the arduous struggle with which they were achieved. But unthinkably, these protections are now under assault, jeopardizing the progress our nation worked so hard to achieve.
Last year, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key component of the Voting Rights Act that enabled prior federal review to ensure nondiscrimination before any new voting law went into effect.
Sadly, the response of Republican leaders has been to do nothing. Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry went out of their way to praise the Supreme Court’s decision. Sen. Rand Paul dismissed the continued necessity of the Voting Rights Act by noting, “We have an African-American president.”
While the election of President Barack Obama was indeed a historic milestone, it is dangerous to think that it absolves us from remaining vigilant against the lingering consequences of our nation’s past. The haste with which states have moved to enact voting restrictions is confirmation that the protections put in place by Section 4 are still necessary.
Republican governors have signed strict photo-identification restrictions into law as the solution to a virtually nonexistent problem of voter impersonation, disproportionately hurting women, young people, working families and the African-American community. It’s disingenuous for Republicans like Paul to seek the votes of these communities when they believe “there’s nothing wrong with” putting restrictions in place that make it harder for these constituencies to vote.
Republicans have also sought to restrict early-voting periods, including the Sunday before Election Day, when African-American churches have had great success with Souls to the Polls programs.