The Voting Rights Act: Commemorate Its 54th Anniversary
Fifty-four years ago today President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, into law. After enduring slavery, segregation and discrimination African Americans (along with Latinos, Native Americans, and numerous other racial and ethnic groups) were still fighting to have their political voices heard. When the Voter Rights Act was signed into law in 1965 it eliminated “illegal barriers to the right to vote”, providing African Americans with meaningful access to their ballots for the first time. In Alabama only 19.3% of the “nonwhite voting eligible population” was registered to vote before the Act was signed; after the VRA that number rose to 51.6%. In Mississippi the contrast was even more pronounced, rising from 6.7% to 59.8%.
Voting rights, like our democracy as a whole, is something we cannot take for granted. In 2013 the Supreme Court removed key provisions of this landmark civil rights law in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision effectively made Section 5 of the Act, the section which required certain jurisdiction with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes to their voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that the changes would not increase discrimination, inoperable and unenforceable unless Congress takes action. While Shelby was certainly a blow to our civil rights infrastructure, the fight is not over. Congress can still restore the Voting Rights Act to its full power by passing HR4. States can also strengthen protections by passing state level legislation.
Granted, today there are not any official poll taxes, literacy test, or grandfather laws. Instead we are seeing more present-day discrimination tactics such as strict voter ID laws, gerrymandering of districts and purging of voter rolls. Tactics that are known to disproportionately affect voters of color.
Colorado Common Cause has led efforts to protect and strengthen the right to vote in our state. We were instrumental in creating an election model where ballots are delivered by mail to all voters, in-person voting options are preserved, and same-day voter registration is available. We have implemented and expanded Automatic Voter Registration. Colorado is leading the way in protecting and expanding our voting accessibility. In November 2018, voters passed which created independent redistricting commissions. In 2019, we passed legislation that will allow people who are currently on parole to vote. This means that for over 11,000 citizens who were previously ineligible to vote in Colorado will have the ability to cast a ballot in upcoming elections. Together, we are making commonsense updates to our elections so more eligible Coloradans can register, vote, and have their voices heard. To read more about Colorado’s election system, which has become a national model, check out our recent report.
On this, the 54th Anniversary, we celebrate the Voting Rights Act as a remarkable accomplishment, a promise of political equality and the start of righting the wrongs of centuries of abuse. Today, as its legacy is under attack, we must also use this time to be energized to continue the fight to restore and strengthen the protections of the Voting Rights Act and protecting our democracy. Each of us must do the work by holding ourselves and our representatives accountable. We must never forget the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making sure that every American citizen that wanted to cast a vote had the ability to do so without discrimination.