Clouds hang heavy this week over what should be a commemoration of President Johnson’s signing into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A historic piece of legislation, the VRA played an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement. It safeguarded the right to vote for all citizens in an era of severe inequality and in a culture not only tolerant of, but also perpetuating, racial discrimination; it also increased accessibility for those previously disenfranchised to freely, safely, and fairly participate in the voting system. So in June when the Supreme Court struck down the section of the VRA requiring certain states and local communities to receive pre-approval from the federal government for any changes made to local election law, the once holistic and highly effective regulatory system protecting voting rights turned into a free-for-all in which many states grabbed this small window of opportunity to pointedly disenfranchise not only racial groups, but other voters who tend left, including students and women. How quickly this turn-around happened. And how backwards it is that, 48 years after President Johnson’s signature, we find ourselves fighting a battle against restrictive voting laws and voter suppression efforts that are popping up in a number of historically discriminatory states.
For three weeks, North Carolina has been making headlines for its hasty, almost manic, sprint to push through a GOP-controlled state House, Senate, and governor’s seat legislation that seeks to prevent voter fraud by reigning in current registration and voting practices. Whether or not voter fraud is a problem plaguing our country is better left to be determined by evidence and not assumptions made on my part (although, these numbers show that the data supports my assumption); however, given the pattern that this complaint is lodged by states with a long history of discriminatory laws, my moral bias notes the correlation and considers North Carolina’s (and a handful of other state’s) voting restriction efforts as suppressive in nature and a thinly veiled attempt to manipulate voting outcomes in a way that would forward a specific political agenda—a view I am certainly not alone in declaring. As a nation, it is crucial that we perceive this hurried action by lawmakers as a cowardly display of defense for their own party ideology—one that is inflexible to the demands of a modern nation taking great strides toward a fully engaged concept of equality, and thus one that is in effect contrary to the democratic principles of our country.
When President Johnson signed the VRA on August 6, 1965, he spoke at length about the significance of the Act as a “triumph for freedom,” arguing for its due relevance and necessity nearly a century after the culmination of the Civil War. He states,
This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to principles, can deny.
His ethical simplification of voting restrictions to a wrong that must be righted should be remembered today as the country observes the latest (and yet entirely outdated) voting suppression debacle. Voting, our democratic American culture tells us, is our due right as citizens; in fact, no other civic responsibility is stressed as having greater purpose or more enormous implications than the power of casting one’s vote. In a struggle to increase voter turnout, the public voice chants that every vote represents a voice, every vote expresses a choice, every vote makes a difference. During election time, the country all too hopefully—and thus only idealistically—calls for every single American to head to the polls to cast their ballot in order to demonstrate our collective, national power as a fully participatory and expressive democracy; in practice, however, too large a number of people are excluded from this right. America’s struggle with poor voter turnout cannot be boiled down to widespread indifference (although admittedly, there is a handful of Americans who can vote, but chose not to for a number of reasons). We have a real problem with the vote, nearly 150 years after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment (prohibiting government from denying the vote based on race), almost 100 years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment (prohibiting the government from denying the vote based on sex), and almost 50 years after the passage of the VRA. In 2013, voting should be our easiest, most convenient civic responsibility; it is, afterall, a constitutionally protected right. Unfortunately, there are some who negatively perceive voting as a handicap, interference, or even a threat to their political belief systems. And so, using misguided patriotic rhetoric and flimsy excuses, a handful of lawmakers continue to try their hardest to legally minimize access to voting for those groups with a disproportional amount of power, including minorities, women, youth, and the poor.
In North Carolina, the recently passed Voter ID law carries severe restrictions on how and when state residents can vote. The new law 1) requires voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls, 2) shortens early voting by a week, 3) ends same-day registration, 4) eliminates a high school program registering students ahead of their 18th birthday, 4) authorizes partisan poll watchers to challenge voters, and 5) discards out-of-precinct voting. If voter fraud is pointed to be the legitimate motive for the audacious law that makes a show of cutting at the problem at every plausible angle, then the numbers and statistics need to support rather than disprove the validity of the problem; indeed, even if voter fraud was as pervasive as these “solutions” make it seem, a campaign as aggressive as this law is would still be over the top for its voting restrictions. The number of specifications laid out in this North Carolina law simply does not add up to its intended preventative purpose; instead, they spell out s-u-p-p-r-e-s-s-i-o-n and only serve to interfere with the authenticity of our American democracy.
In 2013, our national conversation should not be centered around voting restrictions and disenfranchisement (a word one hoped might be archaic by now, but unfortunately is still in use). Instead, we need to be talking about how to open up the voting process to make it easier for all citizens to participate in elections. States need to consider extending early voting, making sure to include more weekend and evening hours; expanding online registration and voting efforts; and implementing programs to register youth and members of minority groups. If discrimination in voting allowances is a wrong that has already been righted almost 50 years ago this week, then this is a conversation that should be off the table and sealed away, not open for negotiation or revision.
Thankfully, Illinois is sending a ray of light through the voting gloom hanging over the country. At the same time that North Carolina made headlines and became the subject of protests for passing its Voter ID laws, Illinois celebrated in becoming the 18th state to allow voters to register online.
There’s still hope.