The right to vote in the United States has never come easy. For minorities, for women, and for marginalized communities across the country, first gaining and then exercising the right to vote has required endless sacrifice and relentless perseverance. Just one day away from an election that will shape the foreseeable trajectory of our democracy, that foundational right – the franchise – requires our constant vigilance as much as it ever has.
Susan B. Anthony was arrested after she cast her vote for president on November 5, 1872. Full women’s suffrage didn’t arrive until nearly a half century later. Even after African-Americans gained suffrage in 1870, they faced a century of rampant, and racist, government-sanctioned voter suppression. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other thinly veiled attempts to keep African-Americans from casting their ballots made the right to vote effectively meaningless. Those who led the efforts for voting rights in the 1960s, like my good friend Congressman John Lewis, were often met with more arrests and brutal displays of force – sometimes lethal – that were broadcast to televisions everywhere and transfixed our nation. Their heroic struggle led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which finally ushered in strong protections against racial discrimination in voting.
STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY
Yet the struggle for equality in voting is ongoing. In fact, it is perhaps more at risk today than any time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. When five justices on the Supreme Court gutted the landmark law in the Shelby County decision in 2013, several states raced to limit access to the voting booth, passing sweeping laws that would disproportionately suppress the voting rights of minorities. In many states, the intent was clear: create rigid restrictions on the ability to exercise the vote; foment fear by threatening to punish anyone who fails to meet the requirements; and, to the extent the courts would let them get away with it, target these restrictions to disproportionately impact African-Americans and other minorities “with surgical precision.” These laws were often justified by wild, unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
Today this trend continues. In Georgia, the very official who controls the state’s voting system is also running for governor, a glaring conflict of interest. He has used his position as secretary of state to aggressively promote his interests as a gubernatorial candidate, including by suspending more than 53,000 voter applications – 70 percent of them filed by African-Americans. In North Dakota, under a new voter ID law, thousands of Native Americans cannot vote because they do not have residential addresses; many use post office boxes. Senator Heidi Heitkamp won North Dakota by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012.
Just this morning, President Trump is attempting to intimidate voters by tweeting that “illegal voting” will be subject to “maximum criminal penalties.” He apparently has not let go his belief in the conspiracy theory that he would have won the popular vote, which he lost by 3 million votes, had it not been for illegal voting. I have asked numerous Trump administration officials to point to any evidence of such widespread illegal voting – all have come up empty. The president’s handpicked voter fraud expert, Kris Kobach, found only 14 instances of fraud out of 84 million ballots cast in previous elections. In typical fashion, President Trump is trying to distract Americans away from the very real threat of systematic voter suppression with the invented specter of mass voter fraud.
On this Election Day – perhaps the most consequential midterm elections of our lifetime – there is reason to hope. Millions of Americans are paying attention and are seeing the desperation of those who seek to maintain their power by suppressing the vote. They are witnessing the impact of this suppression on Americans across the country who simply want to exercise their most basic right to participate in our democracy. If the American people care about this issue and demand progress, Congress will follow.
The Supreme Court has made clear that Congress has the power to restore Voting Rights Act protections. It is only a matter of whether Congress has the will. Earlier this Congress, I led nearly half the Senate – 47 Senators – in writing and introducing the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Shelby County decision. I also introduced, following the lead of Vermont, the Automatic Voter Registration Act to require states to automatically register eligible voters when they turn 18. Vermont’s new law already has achieved 92.5 percent registrations of eligible Vermonters.
Voter suppression is by definition undemocratic. I believe it is un-American. By exercising their right to vote, Americans have an opportunity to resoundingly defeat these tactics. Perhaps then over half of the Senate will support the Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore protections against discrimination in voting. Perhaps then we can finally place the dark chapters of voter suppression and intimidation behind us as a nation.
As my friend Congressman John Lewis has stated, voting “is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.” Similarly, in 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston – the scene of the horrific tragedy a few short years ago – where he noted that voting rights was the key to achieving the American dream for all. Their statements ring as true today as they did 50 years ago.