By Marc H. Morial
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” — The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
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 measures 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 prepare to 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 in the toolbox that dismantle our democracy.
Fifty-two years ago, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced and 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 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 Supreme Court opinion for the case, Chief Justice Roberts reasoned that “things have changed dramatically” since the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 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 that followed 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 Representatives 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 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. Strict voter ID laws, race-based gerrymandering, obstacles to voter registration and a current federal investigation into debunked voter fraud claims that will only serve as a front to introduce more—and likely more severe—voter suppression laws inflict grave harm on our adopted form of governance and its integrity.
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.