Protecting the right to vote

7/7/2017, 1:11 p.m.
Voting is not a privilege. It is a fundamental, constitutionally ratified right afforded to all eligible citizens. The right to ...
Marc H. Morial

Marc H. Moral

Voting is not a privilege. It is a fundamental, constitutionally ratified right afforded to all eligible citizens. The right to elect your federal, state and local representatives and weigh in on proposed local policies via ballot is the very definition of democracy — rule by the people.

Laws that deny eligible men and women the right to the ballot, legislation that strips the power vested in the people to elect their representatives and decide their collective fate contradicts that central definition and cripples our republic.

It is a shame that as we celebrate the 241st anniversary of that momentous occasion when our fledging nation famously declared its independence from England and pledged allegiance to a republic governed by the people, we remain caught in the clutches of a debate as old as the founding of these United States — whether to expand or limit access to the franchise.

Today, legislation and prejudicial partisan tactics that disenfranchise communities of color and groups perceived to be progressive voters are on the rise. Restrictions on voter registration, including the elimination of same-day registration, strict voter ID laws and limiting or eliminating early voting are some of the tools used to dismantle our democracy.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to “break the grip of state disfranchisement” by prohibiting discrimination at the polls. The act also included a provision that monitored states with established histories of discriminatory voting practices, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Those states, including Virginia, could not implement any change or law that affected voting until the federal government reviewed the law and determined that it neither had a discriminatory purpose or effect. Shelby County v. Holder changed everything.

In his U.S. Supreme Court opinion for the case, Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that “things have changed dramatically” since the adoption of the act in 1965, and, with that, the court struck down the provision that required pre-clearance, leaving states free to change their voting laws.

The impact of the decision was immediate. Within minutes, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot tweeted that the state’s voter ID law that had been blocked by the federal government would go into effect. In the year following the ruling, eight states that were previously monitored passed voting restrictions that disproportionately impacted black and brown voters. To date, close to 100 bills to restrict voter registration and access voting have been introduced in 31 states.

Before the rising tide of coordinated efforts to wrench the vote away from huge swaths of our country stand patriots, including Reps. Terri Sewell, John Lewis, Jim Clyburn, Judy Chu and Michele Grisham Lujan, who are committed to protecting the right to vote for all Americans.

In its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed Congress to come up with a modern-day formula that protects voting rights, and it has — the Voting Rights Act Reauthorization, which creates a new state coverage formula that applies to states with repeated voting rights violations in the last 25 years. To restore the promise of voter equality and restore the integrity of our elections, Congress must take up this bill and pass it into law.

The ability to vote, to have a say in the policies and people we choose to represent us, is democracy. It is far too sacred a right to allow it to become weakened over a partisan lust to win at all costs. As we contemplate our country’s early battles for independence, and our national struggles to expand opportunity, equality and freedoms originally denied many Americans, it is clear that we have come too far to accept any rollbacks now. We must restore and protect every American’s access to the polls.

The writer is president of the National Urban League.