Over half a century after the VRA was passed, legislators are still suppressing the vote of black Americans.
Gary Cameron / Reuters
By Jordan Valerie Allen
On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, finally granting all Americans the right to vote.
It has been 52 years since the passage of the VRA. We should be celebrating the progress we’ve made in the past half a century. But instead, we find ourselves being dragged back into the same state of suppression, intimidation, and disenfranchisement that necessitated the VRA in the first place.
In 2013, a split Supreme Court disastrously struck down the sections of the VRA requiring states with a history of discrimination to obtain approval from the United States Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. Since then, state legislatures across the country have been doing everything in their power to deny Americans of color their right to vote — instituting unnecessary voter identification requirements, cutting early voting, gerrymandering based on race, and purging voter rolls.
These suppression tactics overwhelmingly disenfranchise poor, young, and minority voters. They are so blatantly discriminatory that courts have been striking them down with damning indictments. The United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit wrote that North Carolina’s voter suppression law “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson wrote that the state’s law was a “wretched failure” based on an unfounded “preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud” that “leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities.”
But despite the success of voting rights activists in court, the problem still remains that states with a history of discrimination, continuing to this very, still need no federal approval to alter their voting laws. Even worse, approval by the Department of Justice would likely be of no use now that the current administration is actively working to bring the state suppression schemes to a national level. Trump’s admin is forcing the issue by creating a voter suppression commission led by the notorious vote suppressor Kris Kobach, which has already led to thousands of Americans de-registering to vote out of fear. And just yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would now be defending Ohio’s voter purges, which disproportionately disenfranchise poor and black Americans.
The problem is multifaceted. But it starts with new leadership in Washington. Congressional incumbents have simply not taken the necessary actions to ensure that all Americans have full ballot access. We need principled representatives who will be staunch defenders of democracy, beholden not to corporations or wealthy donors, but the American people. And that’s exactly what Brand New Congress promises to bring. Our candidates will fight tirelessly to remove money from politics, get rid of the electoral college in favor of the popular vote, make election day a national holiday, expand early voting and mail-in voting, investigate alternative voting systems such as ranked choice voting, and simply improve the actual mechanics of voting so that all Americans have easy access to the ballot.
Civil rights activists shed literal blood, sweat, and tears in order to ensure that all Americans can vote, regardless of race. 52 years after the VRA’s passage, we must honor their legacy and labor by demanding that the progress they achieved not be erased.
Jordan Valerie is a Brand New Congress volunteer, filmmaker, journalist, political activist, and proud queer woman of color dedicated to civil rights, civic engagement, diversity, and watching a movie a week.