Last Sunday, August 6th, marked the 52nd anniversary of one of the United States’ most important pieces of legislation in history, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. When it comes to civil rights, there are few bills that measure up alongside the VRA either in terms of the advancement of equality or importance to the sanctity of American democracy.
In the primarily Southern jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act, less than one-third (29.3%) of the African-American population was registered to vote in 1965. In the next two years following the bill’s passage, the rate of registration increased to over half (52.1%). That monumental increase meant that in nine of the thirteen Southern states, the majority of African-Americans were registered to vote. As a result, between 1965 and 1985, the number of African-Americans elected as state legislators in former confederate states increased from 3 to 176. Later amendments to the VRA which mandated multilingual election requirements fostered similar increases in voter registration for Hispanics and Asian-Americans.
These numbers reinforce the simple fact that the VRA is the single most important piece of policy in guaranteeing minority voting rights. Given the legislation’s effectiveness, it should come as no surprise that, in the increasingly politically and racially polarized society of modern America, there are those who would see this landmark achievement diminished and undermined.
Perhaps the most significant blow to the Act came in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down the preclearance formulawhich had been used to ensure states with a history of discrimination at the ballot box could not implement electoral changes without the approval of the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court of D.C. In just the next 48 hours following the 5-4 decision, six of the previously covered states moved forward to restrict the right to vote.
That decision emboldened those who saw the potential for political gain by suppressing the right to vote, particularly for racial minorities. For example, in August-Richmond County, Georgia, there was an attempt by government officials in 2011 to move local elections from November to July, a move which was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice because it would have a disproportionate effect on black voters. However, less than a year after the Supreme Court decision, the county’s board of elections moved local elections from November to July after holding meetings that were closed to the public to discuss the change.
It has been 52 years since Congressman John Lewis marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge alongside Martin Luther King Jr, an act which helped bring black rights to the forefront and convince Congress to act on minority voting restrictions. It is disappointing, disheartening, and shameful that black Americans are being forced to fight that same fight after so many years. American democracy is stronger for all when the process is open and participation is maximized. Those who would perpetuate myths of illegal voters and voter fraud to win elections and sate egos represent the true threat to this country, not people who can’t afford to get a voter ID. State and federal legislators have a responsibility to do better by their constituents, and those who choose to shirk that responsibility should step aside and allow this country to move forward, not slide backwards.
Tharon Johnson is a consultant with Paramount Consulting Group and a Democrat strategist.