At the signing of the historic Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965 striking down the discriminatory practices many states had put in place to prohibit Blacks from exercising their right to vote, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.” Many Americans think of the fight for voting rights as a struggle that was settled once and for all during the Civil Rights Movement in that celebrated “triumph for freedom,” and is now a piece of history. But that’s a dangerous assumption. While the Voting Rights Act and other federal voting laws prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, language, ethnicity, religion, and age, there is still no law that affirmatively guarantees citizens the right to vote. Just as we are experiencing a quiet but systematic rise in school segregation across the country, many people don’t realize that there is once again a quiet but systematic movement that would deny many African Americans and other American citizens the ability to vote with 21st century versions of old exclusionary practices.
The Advancement Project is a civil rights law, policy, and communications “action tank” whose work includes fighting to protect the right to vote. In their new report What’s Wrong With This Picture?, they warn that proposals being considered by nearly two-thirds of the states to require photo identification for voting are threatening to become a modern-day version of the Jim Crow-era poll tax, and are “a reactionary trend that is part of the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century.” As they explain, “These photo ID proposals stand to create second-class citizenship for classes of voters, particularly racial minorities, senior citizens, young voters, people with disabilities, immigrants, the working poor and students, who are disproportionately less likely to have current state ID or face substantial hurdles to getting one, who stand to be turned away or denied a regular ballot.” A recent New York Timeseditorial on the same threat cited a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law that found 11 percent of citizens, or 21 million people, don’t have a current photo ID—including 15 percent of low-income eligible voters, 18 percent of young eligible voters, and 25 percent of Black eligible voters. College students are among the voters who would be affected in states like Texas and Wisconsin that are considering denying their student ID photo cards as valid forms of identification.
Requirements for state-issued photo ID are just one of the modern ways voting rights are being threatened, including laws in several states disenfranchising people who have committed crimes after they have completed their sentences. The Advancement Project’s Right to Vote Initiative explains that they are continually trying to stop many other kinds of threats on a widespread scale: “Democracy advocates literally have to monitor and negotiate with thousands of local jurisdictions over issues such as how missing information on voter registration forms is handled, when and under what circumstances voters are ‘purged,’ i.e., removed from the rolls, what types of election equipment are used and how that equipment is allocated among precincts and how poll workers are trained.” As they sum it up, “Without a federal guarantee of the right to vote, states use their control over this basic citizenship right in a patchwork quilt of arbitrary rules with vast consequences for close elections.”
We can’t afford to remain silent—or ignorant—about the overt and covert ways some states are trying to restrict access to voting rights and their potential “vast consequences” for undermining voting rights and choosing our leaders. Although proposals pending in many state legislatures have not yet become law, it is crucial for leaders and citizens to wake up, speak up, and be ever vigilant. As he signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders at his side, President Johnson stated he had long believed “this right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.” We must not go backwards and we must ensure that the next election is not mischievously undermined by making it more difficult for millions to vote.