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52 Years Later, the Fight for Voting Rights Continues

March 7, 2017

Marcia Johnson-Blanco

Co-Director, for the Voting Rights Project

Today marks the 52nd Anniversary of the day when approximately 600 marchers seeking voting rights were brutally attacked as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama at the beginning of a 54-mile march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery.  The goal of the march was to raise awareness of the many ways in which African Americans were being denied the right to vote.  These marchers were subjected to a brutal attack by those who relied on restrictive laws and violence to deny African Americans the promise of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution.  Adopted in 1870, this Amendment simply states that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged because of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Yet many states passed a series of onerous laws that made it virtually impossible to register to vote and put those who achieved the impossible at risk of bodily harm when they tried to exercise their voting rights.  The bravery of those crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge shamed the nation into passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965; one of the most successful and transformational laws ever passed by Congress.Today, that success is in jeopardy.  In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, ignored the record compiled by Congress on continued discrimination in voting and nullified a very important provision of the VRA.  Today, states such as Alabama with a record of implementing discriminatory voting laws are no longer required to have their voting laws federally reviewed to determine their impact on minority voters.  Alabama has joined states such as Texas and North Carolina in passing restrictive voting laws such as voter ID to vote and documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote. Laws that keep hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from the ballot.  Federal courts in Texas and North Carolina have found that Voter ID laws passed by those states are intentionally discriminatory.   The litigation in these cases continue and although the Department of Justice has recently made the troubling decision to withdraw its claim that the Texas voter ID law is intentionally discriminatory, civil rights organizations, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under law, continue the fight.

This fight is necessary at a time when far too many states are engaged in persistent attempts to suppress the right to vote.  These attempts began at the beginning of this decade and unfortunately continue in the face of findings that these laws have a disproportionate impact on minority voters.  They continue despite data collected by programs such as Election Protection that have documented the impact of restrictive voter ID  and documentary proof of citizenship voter registration laws.  They continue despite findings in litigation against restrictive laws in Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Kansas and Ohio that hundreds of thousands of voters are denied the right to vote by these laws.  This documentation is important because it provides data about the impact of suppressive laws and supports the need for reforms such as automatic voter registration and expansion of early voting that improves access to the ballot.

Half a century after the brutal attack on the Edmund Pettus bridge, voting rights continue to be at risk.  Today, we must follow the example of those brave citizens who insisted that the U.S. government enforce the right to vote now enshrined in our constitution.  Government today needs to hear from we the people about the need for full and robust voting rights just as it did 52 years ago because sadly, the right to vote remains under attack.

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