By Marc H. Morial
“Some of the protections that had been enshrined in the Voting Rights Act itself have been weakened as a consequence of court decisions and interpretations of the law. State legislatures have instituted procedures and practices that, although on the surface may appear neutral, have the effect of discouraging people from voting … And if, in fact, those practices, those trends, those tendencies are allowed to continue unanswered, then over time the hard-won battles of 50 years ago erode, and our democracy erodes.”
– President Barack Obama, August 6, 2015
On the eve of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal appeals court in New Orleans struck down a strict Texas voter identification law. In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel found that the law violated the federal Voting Rights Act and had a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on Blacks and Hispanics in the state.
The law – which requires forms of identification that many poor people and people in communities of color either do not have or have great difficulty accessing – made it far more difficult for these groups, including college students and the elderly, to exercise their constitutional right as citizens to vote.
The importance of the ruling has not been lost on advocates battling on the frontlines to expand our nation’s access to the ballot and thwart legislative attempts at voter suppression. It was a small victory in the larger enterprise of many Republican-controlled states efforts to limit voters’ rights.
It was a reminder of why the landmark civil rights legislation signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago remains an important weapon in the fight to expand access to the polls. And it underscored why Congress needs to make restoring the Voting Rights Act a political priority.
The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s regrettable 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to gut Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act – which established which states had to get advance approval from the federal government before making any changes to their election laws – ushered in a wave of tough voter suppression laws.
Texas does not stand alone in its zeal to make it harder for Americans to vote. Wisconsin and North Carolina have passed similar voter identification laws – and the restrictive measures don’t just end there.
Eliminating same-day registration, shortening early voting, doing away with online voting registration and aggressively purging voters from the voter registration rolls are some of the other tactics legislators are using to deny eligible voters access to the polls. These lawmakers justify their restrictive policies with allegations of voter fraud – a claim that experts have proven to be unfounded time and again.
The myth of widespread voter identification fraud appears to be nothing more than a political fraud orchestrated by officials eager to shift political fortunes to their party.
There is no right more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote. We, as a nation, must ensure that all Americans who can vote have the opportunity to vote. The seemingly obvious idea that a democracy functions at its best when the largest number of its citizens are afforded the opportunity to determine who will lead it – and how it will be led – is under a modern-day legislative assault.
If our elected officials truly do believe that all votes matter, Congress must commit to stemming the tide of suppression and get to the work of fully restoring voter protections in the Voting Rights Act.
The National Urban League stands with President Barack Obama and the civil rights and voting rights advocates calling for the full restoration of the Voting Rights Act and the reinstatement of the voter protections dismantled under the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 decision.
And we would do well to remember that this fight goes beyond maneuvers in the halls of Congress. As President Obama said during his remarks at the White House commemoration of the golden anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, “Far more people disenfranchise themselves than any law does, by not participating, by not getting involved.”
The number of Americans who participated in the 2014 midterm elections was reportedly the lowest it’s been since World War II. We cannot clamor for the right to vote only to turn around and ignore our civic duty. We owe that much and more to those who fought and bled and died to secure the right to vote because it is not enough to gain the right, we must employ, maintain and protect it as well.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.