There’s a funny thing about anniversaries. Just as we look back with nostalgia on the way things were, so do we inevitably reflect on how things have changed in the intervening years.
So it is as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Enormous strides have been made in racial justice since the march, and because of the spirit it embodied. But right now, as we reflect on where we are today, we are confronted with a political culture that seems to have taken a step backward.
Marchers 50 years ago argued for voting rights protections that were realized with the passage, two years later, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, instead of making the right to vote a rock solid commitment, we actually find ourselves as a nation debating settled principles and even settled law when it comes to protecting the franchise.
The recent ruling by the Supreme Court in Shelby v Holder that disabled the most effective provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the one that required pre-clearance by the Justice Department of changes proposed by states with a history of voting discrimination — has highlighted a campaign begun in recent years to make voting ever harder.
In some ways this development is a bit of a mystery. The Voting Rights Act was enacted by a 328-74 bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives and 79-18 in the Senate. As a result, in 1968 the United States held its first truly free federal election, one in which the number of newly registered African-Americans equaled the number that had registered in the previous 100 years.
In another bipartisan effort, the Voter Registration Act (VRA) was enacted in 1993 by a vote of 259-164 in the House and 62-36 in the Senate. The VRA, also known as the Motor Voter Act, required states to provide for voter registration when applying for a driver’s license or public assistance and to allow for voter registration by mail.
After the debacle of Florida’s 2000 election, a bipartisan coalition enacted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) two years later by a vote of 357-48 in the House and 92-2 in the Senate. HAVA set new mandatory minimum standards for states to follow in several key areas of election administration.
And as recently as 2006, Congress passed and President Bush signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act for 25 years, relying on mountains of evidence of continuing discrimination. The vote was 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. These overwhelming bi-partisan majorities are worth remembering.
Yet we are now confronted, not with efforts to end hours-long lines to vote, or to make it easier to register, or to extend early voting, but by efforts to impose unjustified restrictions on who can cast a ballot and to make casting a ballot ever more difficult.
Before Shelby v Holder, several states and local jurisdictions passed, or attempted to pass, laws eliminating same-day registration, shortening hours for registration, moving polling places in ways that disadvantaged minority communities, and perhaps most egregious, instituting photo ID requirements. The photo ID requirement is supposed to prevent individual voter fraud, although there is virtually no evidence that such fraud exists.
These efforts gained a veneer of legitimacy when the Supreme Court ruled that such requirements were legal in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, an ill-advised decision that said states merely had to have plausible reasons for a photo ID law. Critics have since amassed evidence that significant portions of the electorate will be severely disadvantaged by photo ID requirements that assume a potential voter can prove citizenship or is in possession of a birth certificate. For many, particularly poor, older, and minority voters (a majority of whom are women), acquiring such documentation is onerous and expensive, if it can be done at all. The photo ID requirement turns out to be the equivalent of a poll tax, supposedly barred by the 24th amendment to the Constitution.
Since the decision in Shelby a mere two months ago, several states have pressed election changes that will infringe on the rights of voters. It is clear that voters — present and future — can’t rely on the Supreme Court to protect the right to vote. Indeed, most Americans would be surprised to know that the Constitution contains no affirmative right to vote, though it does say, through amendments, that states may not restrict the right to vote on the basis of race or gender, cannot require a poll tax, and must allow those 18 and over to vote.
In the spirit of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is again time to act to preserve that bedrock right that makes freedom possible. Whether it is through passage of a constitutional amendment affirming every citizen’s right to vote or a revitalization of the spirit and letter of the Voting Rights Act, Congress must act. It would be most fitting if it did so before the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act two years hence.
(Nancy K. Kaufman is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.)