The right to vote is one of the hallmarks of American democracy, as well as one of the most sacred rights granted to U.S. citizens. The power of the ballot box is one of great importance, allowing citizens to choose their leaders and preventing those leaders from forgetting the people that they represent.
Today marks 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or VRA, into law. This bipartisan legislation was meant to protect people of color, particularly African Americans, from a long history of discrimination and violence around voting in elections. While the use of poll taxes and literacy tests are long gone in various states, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Shelby County v. Holder decision has made voting more difficult. As we honor one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history, we must all remain aware that the voting rights of Americans throughout the country are not as secure as they once were.
Prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution’s 15th and 19th amendments, voting was, for the most part, restricted to only white male citizens of voting age. While these constitutional amendments ensured that all eligible citizens had the right to vote, the rules and laws surrounding voter registration and casting ballots were left to each state to decide.
This meant that while the Constitution theoretically ensured the right to vote for all eligible citizens, state officials and vigilante groups actively took steps to limit access to the polls for people of color, particularly black voters. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and acts of violence are just a few of the tactics used to intimidate voters of color, preventing them from exercising their rightful civic duty. These tools were successfully implemented across the country, effectively disenfranchising large numbers of voters for many years.
The VRA ended these practices, banning literacy tests and poll taxes and using the resources of the federal government to ensure that everyone eligible to vote had the ability to do so. These added protections led to increased registration and turnout—particularly among African Americans throughout the South—and the election of black leaders throughout the country. The VRA has been periodically strengthened and was reauthorized by Congress in 2006 with bipartisan support, ensuring that the right to vote remained secure for all eligible citizens.
Unfortunately, voting rights are under attack once again. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which ruled a section of the VRA unconstitutional, struck a devastating blow to voting rights, reducing federal oversight of elections and giving rise to a new era of voter suppression. Throughout the nation, state legislatures have made efforts to pass laws that have the potential to significantly reduce eligible voters’ ability to cast ballots at the polls. Reducing early voting, ending same-day registration, and implementing voter ID requirements are a few examples of attempts to make voting more difficult. While these new tactics do not explicitly restrict voting rights for anyone based on their race or ethnicity, studies have shown that these laws and rules present significant obstacles to people of color, the elderly, and low-income individuals as they attempt to exercise their right to vote. Implemented under the guise of reducing voter fraud—which is nearly nonexistent—these new laws reduce voter registration and turnout.
People of color will comprise a majority of the nation’s population by the year 2050. While this may seem like its a long way off, the demographic shift is already taking place in certain states across the country. Jurisdictions cannot continue to use decades’ old maneuvers that have the potential to disenfranchise the very communities that will soon be a majority. It is important, particularly as these communities become a larger share of the population, for policymakers to hear the voices and address the concerns of communities of color. Diminishing the political clout of these communities by making voting more difficult leaves open the real possibility that elected officials will continue to ignore valid policy concerns because communities of color cannot hold them accountable.
While members of Congress have made efforts to restore the protections guaranteed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the partisanship in today’s Congress has decreased the likelihood of a new bill becoming law. Unlike in the past, when voting protections were passed in strong bipartisan fashion, the prospects of passing an updated VRA through the Republican-controlled Congress are greatly diminished. If lawmakers wish to uphold the nation’s ideals, they should take steps to ensure that voting is accessible to all.
Jamal Hagler is the Research Assistant for the Center for American Progress’ Progress 2050 project, which examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.