It's Time to Honor Dr. King's Commitment to Voting Rights

Hispanic voter voting in polling place
Hispanic voter voting in polling place

Among the many accomplishments in his all-too-short life, perhaps none was as important to Dr. Martin Luther King as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King understood that the single most important tool that African-Americans could use to unravel the worst elements of state-sanctioned discrimination was the ballot box. Decades before the Civil Rights movement emerged, communities across the nation had contrived a system of electoral exclusion that depended on a witch's brew of poll taxes, literacy tests and "good character" clauses. When these obstacles failed to dissuade potential voters, violence or threats of violence offered a useful and effective supplement to the campaign of disenfranchisement.

In the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, Dr. King boldly decided to press President Lyndon Johnson to explicitly defend voting rights. The early months of 1965 saw Dr. King and other civil rights activists risk their lives in places such as Selma and Marion, Alabama to highlight the extremes to which some communities would go to deny African Americans the franchise. Images of bloodied civil rights protesters outraged the nation. That summer, President Johnson, surrounded by Dr. King and Rosa Parks, signed the Voting Rights Act into law at a White House ceremony. No other piece of legislation had such a positive effect on the ability of all Americans--irrespective of race, ethnic origin or native language--to participate in our democratic system.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in the case of Shelby v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act has been crippled. By undermining the ability of the federal government to oversee electoral policies and procedures at the state and local levels of government, a slim majority of the Supreme Court has created a terrible rollback of voting rights in America. Republican-led State Legislatures in a number of states have passed a series of laws that make it more difficult for Americans to register to vote and cast their ballots. In 2015, according to the Brennan Center for Justice and New York University School of Law, at least 113 bills to restrict access to voting and registration were introduced in 33 states. In 15 states, new restrictions on voting and registering will be in effect this year and will almost certainly have an impact on the 2016 national elections.

As one of the nation's leading Latino civil rights organizations, Hispanic Federation takes the current assault on voting rights very seriously. As we have seen in recent years, Latino voters are the targets of a number of voter restriction laws including a series of voter identification laws that mask discrimination by making specious arguments about voter fraud. What's more, as a recent article in the New York Times points out, Latino communities often find their electoral power diluted by schemes to create at-large districts in municipalities where Latino political power seems to be in ascent.

The only way to undo all of this damage is to revitalize the Voting Rights Act. In its decision in Shelby v. Holder, The Supreme Court was clear: "voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that." But they left it up to Congress to design new tools and benchmarks for protecting voters. Last year, Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman John Lewis introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act. The Act would again give the federal government the power to oversee changes in voting policies, including the adoption of voter identification laws. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to act. Republicans in the House and Senate have failed to schedule hearings on the bills and they have shown little to no interest in answering the Supreme Court's challenge to fix the issues raised in Shelby v. Holder. That is unacceptable. It's time for Congress to get serious about protecting the voting rights of all Americans. Dr. King wouldn't expect any less from us.