I grew up in the segregated South, where if you had the wrong skin color and tried to register to vote or cast a ballot, you might be forced to pass a literacy test, pay a poll tax or even face the threat of physical violence.
But 51 years ago today President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Suddenly, our federal government began protecting the rights of all citizens to vote. Suddenly, millions of formerly disenfranchised voters had a voice. And slowly, the face of politics and power in the United States began to change. Southern office holders, state legislatures and congressional delegations became more representative, more responsive. With new leaders came new laws, moving us all toward that more perfect union the Constitution describes.
It was a profound victory for families like mine — for the working poor and for those living on the outskirts of hope. It meant new opportunities in education and in the workplace, and for upward economic mobility. That’s why I celebrate the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act every year, but more importantly, it’s why I continue to fight alongside the Democratic Party against efforts to erect new barriers, and to protect the right to vote.
Yet, in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which weakened the power of the Voting Rights Act, Republican-led state legislatures have passed a spate of restrictive election laws that make it harder to vote, ostensibly to combat the almost non-existent “problem” of “voter fraud.”
These laws are actually part of a strategy to make it more difficult for certain groups to vote. By rolling back early voting, eliminating same-day registration, implementing photo ID laws, limiting provisional ballots, and so forth, the GOP has systematically targeted women, communities of color, working families, students, first-generation Americans, and the elderly — all people who are less likely to support Republican candidates on Election Day.
But there’s good news for champions of voting rights. With a recent string of rulings from across the nation, our courts are striking down these laws.
On July 29th, a federal appeals court in North Carolina struck down provisions of the state’s voter ID law saying that Republican lawmakers targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.” That same day, a federal judge came to a similar conclusion about Wisconsin’s restrictive election laws. And on Tuesday, a federal judge in North Dakota barred the state from enforcing a strict photo ID law that put “substantial and disproportionate burdens” on Native American voters.
These decisions come after separate rulings in Texas, Kansas, Ohio, and an earlier one in Wisconsin all concluded that Republican-sponsored “anti-voter fraud” measures were nothing more than partisan attempts to disenfranchise eligible voters.
Limiting the vote hurts hardworking Americans. It silences the mother who must choose between waiting in line to vote or picking up her children at daycare; the widow who needs help casting an absentee ballot; and the worker juggling two jobs to make ends meet.
After polling locations in communities of color were inexplicably shuttered during the March primary in Arizona, the Democratic National Committee has joined a lawsuit to reverse that disenfranchisement. And we applaud the work of civic groups, voting activists, and legal advocates who helped restore the voices of Americans in Ohio and other states.
But we — all citizens who care about our country — must do more.
And so, we will be endorsing and promoting the following:
- Restore the Voting Rights Act; Require all electronic voting machines to have a paper trail
- Make Election Day a national holiday
- End Citizens United and require all candidates for office to release their taxes and list of donors
- Establish Independent Redistricting Commissions in each state, similar to the one in Arizona
- Expand voter participation by making registration easier
- Restore the rights of those who have served their time
- End requirements for a photo ID, drastic purging of targeted voters, changing polling sites, restrictions on early voting, and other attempts at voter suppression
- Make voter intimidation tactics illegal
These, and similar measures, will enhance, not restrict, voter participation.
For our democracy to succeed, all of us must be given the chance to make our voices heard. Erecting barriers around our most fundamental right — the right to vote — weakens the ties that hold our nation together. We are at our best when we build bridges, not walls.
Donna Brazile is Chair of the Democratic National Committee