The New Fight for Voting Rights

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This post first appeared in The Nation.

Allie Santiago of Houston, left, Brenda Reid of Bronx, N.Y., second from left, Caril Howard of North Chesterville, Va., and Jo Ann White Thompson of Goldsboro, N.C., listen to a musical performance during the March on Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. President Barack Obama will speak later Wednesday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Allie Santiago of Houston, left, Brenda Reid of Bronx, N.Y., second from left, Caril Howard of North Chesterville, Va., and Jo Ann White Thompson of Goldsboro, N.C., at the March on Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, at the Lincoln Memorial. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

During this week’s events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, the fight for voting rights emerged as a central cause for the civil rights movement. In 1963, few blacks could vote in the states of the Old Confederacy. In 2013, there’s a black president, but the right to vote is under the most sustained attack — in the states and the courts — since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

At the official commemoration today, Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter voiced their dismay over the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the VRA and the rush to implement new voter suppression laws in seven Southern states since the ruling.

“A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon,” said Clinton, referencing a Texas voter ID law that accepts a concealed carry permit, but not a student ID, to cast a ballot.

“I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the new ID requirements to exclude certain voters, especially African-Americans,” said Carter. “I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the Supreme Court striking down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act just recently passed overwhelmingly by Congress.”

We must challenge “those who erect new barriers to the vote,” said Obama.

Voting rights issues were even more front and center at Saturday’s “Realize the Dream” rally and march.

“This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice—until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, who just filed a suit challenging Texas’s voter ID law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote,” said Congressman John Lewis, who was nearly killed during the “Bloody Sunday” march in 1965. “I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.”

Lewis spoke for everyone at the rally when he said, “We must say to the Congress: fix the Voting Rights Act.”

Any congressional fix to the VRA will require bipartisan support and no Republicans spoke at either of the two major March on Washington commemorations. But Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) did promise congressional action to save the VRA by the end of the year at a meeting of black Republicans sponsored by the RNC. Said Sensenbrenner:

“I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act as an effective tool to prevent discrimination, more subtle discrimination now than overt discrimination. This is going to be difficult because of the way the court worded its decision, but so far this effort has been bipartisan and bicameral. A month and a half ago, Congressman John Lewis and I went over and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on how important the Voting Rights Act is. At the end of the testimony, Mr. Lewis turned around and put his arm on my shoulder and said ‘Jim, you are my friend and my brother.’ And that was one of the highest compliments that I have received in almost 46 years in elected public office.

Senator Leahy said I was a civil rights icon. I said, ‘no, I’m not an icon, I’m a mechanic.’ And my job is to fix the Voting Rights Act. Now, the first thing we have to do is to take the monkey wrench that the court threw in it out of the Voting Rights Act and then use that monkey wrench to be able to fix it so that it is alive, well, constitutional and impervious to another challenge that will be filed by the usual suspects…. This is something that has to be done by the end of the year so that a revised and constitutional Voting Rights Act is in place before the 2014 election season, both primaries and general elections.”

This is probably wishful thinking on Sensenbrenner’s part; this week illustrated how few champions of civil rights there are in the GOP today. But voting rights advocates have developed a five-part strategy for protecting the franchise.

Number one: Challenge discriminatory voting laws in the courts through the remaining provisions of the VRA or under state constitutions. This is already happening in Texas and North Carolina.

Number two: Organize locally to register new voters and help them comply with the onerous new voting changes by making sure, for example, that everyone who needs an ID can get one. That’s a major task in places like North Carolina (318,000 registered voters don’t have government-issued ID) and Texas (600-800,000 registered voters without ID.) The work of coalitions like the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina is vital in this regard. They held rallies in the state’s thirteen congressional districts today advocating for voting rights.

Number three: Lobby Congress to pass a new VRA. The House and Senate held the first hearings on the VRA last month. The next step is for legislation to be introduced, which voting rights groups can then rally around.

Number four: Expand voting rights in states where there is a more favorable political climate, like Colorado, which earlier this year lengthened early voting and adopted Election Day voter registration. According to the Brennan Center, ten states have passed new voting changes this year that make it easier to vote (what a revolutionary concept).

Number five: Mobilize voters for the 2014 elections. The potential backlash against voter suppression laws could be a major factor in the midterms, like it was in 2012, when the black vote surpassed the white vote for the first time in presidential history. “Will we get a new Voting Rights Act map in this Congress?” the Rev. Al Sharpton told me recently. “Probably not. But it can be a central issue in the midterm elections to galvanize the vote, like we did last year.”

Ari Berman is a senior reporter for Mother Jones, where he covers voting rights. Previously he was a senior contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His second book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, was published in August 2015 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Follow him on Twitter: @AriBerman.
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