Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. It's a day when we should commemorate and celebrate the successes of a federal law that, for decades, protected Americans' access to the ballot box -- and led us farther along to the creation of a democracy that represents us all.
The law ensured that several states and jurisdictions -- based on their histories -- were prohibited from putting laws and practices into place that made it harder, if not impossible, for Americans of color to cast votes. Thanks to the VRA, millions of citizens who had been blocked in the past, were turning out in higher numbers, electing candidates of their choice. The sins of our past were being edged out by the promise of a more inclusive future.
For nearly 50 years, the VRA worked. It stopped thousands of practices that would have kept Americans of color and immigrant citizens from having their voices heard in a political process that, at least on revered paper, accounted for us all. But there's more work -- plenty more -- that must still be done. At the law's last reauthorization, in 2006, Congress considered over 15,000 pages of evidence detailing practices and laws with discriminatory intents or purposes that would have deprived thousands -- perhaps millions -- of their constitutional right had the Act not nipped them in the bud.
An all-white elections board, for example, canceled an election the day before voters of color, in a jurisdiction with a growing minority population, were poised to elect the candidate of their choice. There was evidence, too, that in counties across the country, officials had ignored a legal requirement that translated ballots be furnished to citizens still learning English. And investigators found that poll workers in some places consistently turned away Black voters for lacking required IDs while allowing whites in similar straits to vote.
These incidents happened after 2000. Not in 1965, when the law was first passed.
Given strong evidence that people of color were, in present day, still being denied the right to vote, it came as a shock and defeat when the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, eviscerated a key part of the VRA. Now, areas with discriminatory histories are no longer required to submit proposed voting changes for the go-ahead before implementation. Authoring the opinion, Justice Roberts acknowledged that "any racial discrimination in voting is too much," but nevertheless killed a protection that had successfully prevented institutional bigotry from taking hold.
The Court's decision -- one failing to account for today's realities- - permitted a new "pre-clearance" formula so long as "current conditions" are considered when identifying where protections are still needed. Two years have passed since Shelby, and two bills have been introduced in Congress to right what the Court got wrong. But nothing has happened -- no hearing has been held, no vote taken -- that would return protections for our most cherished American right and responsibility. What a difference a decade makes. Through 2006, the law, at each of its four reauthorizations, received wide bipartisan support, a testament to the fact that the VRA represented, not Democratic or Republican, but American values.
It's these values to which we must hold fast now. Much has happened in the past year alone to remind the Court, members of Congress, and all of us that discrimination persists, and that -- as far as we've come over the past 50 years -- we still need protections in place until we reach that more perfect union.
Numerous acts -- killings of Michael Brown and others, persistence by some in waving the confederate flag high, the burning of Black churches -- indicate that the ideals of our American society have not yet fully born out, and that there is more we need to do to establish a just society in which all have a say.
Since Shelby, nearly half the country has passed laws making it harder for working Americans -- people of color, the disabled, youth, and seniors -- to cast their constitutionally-guaranteed ballots. In North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, just to name a few, court battles wage over allegations that seem as though they're half a century old but are in fact current. Whether these laws are intentionally or effectively discriminatory - the district court in Texas just held that the state's photo ID law was discriminatory -- it is clear that these laws hamper our collective voices, and that the racism and bigotry occurring on a broader scale seeps into our voting practices too. As Judge Richard Posner, a conservative appellate jurist from the 7th circuit observed, these laws are partisan moves to keep specific people - the very ones the VRA once protected -- from the polls. Such laws are designed to disenfranchise.
But we can -- and must -- do better. We can resurrect these American ideals that ensured this country was on its way toward an inclusive and representative government responsible and accountable to all. Protecting the right to vote is a necessary part; as Dr. King powerfully warned, "so long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself ... I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact -- I can only submit to the edict of others."
In a democracy enshrining each individual's "pursuit of happiness," no one citizen need "submit to the edict of others." Congress must act swiftly to restore protections that brought us, bit by bit, closer to a more egalitarian America. Each of us must also do the work necessary to move hearts and minds -- ours and others' -- closer to that promise. It will not happen overnight, but as we hold ourselves and our representatives accountable, this country can still achieve a government of, by, and for the people. One that represents and accounts for us all.