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By Page Gardner, WVWVAF Founder & President
While signing the Voting Rights Act 53 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the landmark law “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”
But there are no lasting victories in the struggle for civil rights. As Americans celebrate the Voting Rights Act’s anniversary, it is imperiled. Emboldened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutting a key provision, 22 states have made it more difficult to register and vote – and these barriers have hurt African Americans’ right to vote the hardest. Now, by nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the conservative majority will be further emboldened to give states the go-ahead to disenfranchise their most vulnerable citizens.
Now as in the past, Americans need to fight for everyone’s right to cast their ballots and have them counted. Yes, the Voting Rights Act was passed by a bipartisan majority of Congress in 1965. But it took decades of struggle, culminating in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama where state police brutalized peaceful demonstrators, including future Congressman John Lewis.
As LBJ and Lewis understood, voting is our most basic right, allowing Americans to elect our public officials and hold them accountable for their actions. When the Voting Rights law was enacted and enforced, millions of previously disenfranchised African Americans in the southern states registered and voted. Regional and national politics were transformed because more people were finally being counted. Latinos, women, and young people were inspired to increase their participation in the democratic process.
Reflecting Americans’ support for voting rights, Congress has reauthorized the law four times. But in 2013, by a 5-to-4 margin, the Supreme Court gutted a key provision that required states with histories of racial discrimination to get federal approval when revising their election laws. Since this disastrous rollback, governors and legislators in 22 states have passed laws restricting voting rights that targeted people of color and other marginalized groups
In place of outright poll taxes and literacy tests, today’s tactics are less in-your-face but equally discriminatory. New barriers include discriminatory voter ID requirements, cutbacks in early voting and vote-by-mail, thinly veiled voter intimidation and the deliberate denial of functioning voting machines, leading to long lines on election day when people can’t spend hours away from their jobs or children.
Further raising the stakes in Kavanaugh’s nomination, the Supreme Court recently ruled that Ohio can continue its discriminatory voter purges. More than a million people, including disproportionate numbers of African Americans, have been removed from Ohio’s registration rolls through purges. Six other states have similar purges underway, and more than a dozen more say they want to follow Ohio’s lead.
Kavanaugh’s record strongly suggests that he will defend disenfranchisement. As a judge on the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012, he wrote the opinion upholding the unjust South Carolina Voter ID law. While the Obama administration contended that the law violated the Voting Rights Act, Kavanaugh insisted that it wasn’t discriminatory, even though it potentially disenfranchised almost 80,000 voters, hitting hardest at African Americans.
These controversies continue the historic conflict from our nation’s founding to the Civil War, the campaign for women’s suffrage and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s over whether all Americans, or only a privileged few, will have a voice and vote. Our democracy depends upon empowering the Rising American electorate – the people of color, unmarried women, and young people who comprise almost 60 percent of voting-eligible Americans but do not register and vote in numbers that reflect their place in our society. Voting restrictions are specifically designed to disenfranchise these historically hard-pressed groups.
In the debate about Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, the stakes are as stark as they were more than 50 years ago on the historic journey from Selma to Montgomery — and from disenfranchisement to democracy. We must answer the challenge as courageously as they did 53 years ago when the Voting Rights Act was passed – when the President, the protestors and the Congressional majorities from both parties decided to defend, not deny, our most fundamental freedom.