Today we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights law that John Lewis was willing to die for as he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In signing the Act in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson pledged: “We will not delay, or we will not hesitate, or we will not turn aside until Americans of every race and color and origin in this country have the same right as all others to share in the process of democracy.” For a nation mourning our fiercest champion of this seminal legislation, we should use this anniversary to double down on fulfilling its promise of participatory democracy.
Current challenges to voting are as daunting as they come. We are in the middle of a global pandemic that is forcing voters—in the most consequential election in modern history—to choose between their lives and their vote. While voting by mail provides a safe, alternative method, the Trump administration is mounting a partisan attack on the postal service to undermine its efficacy. Exacerbating the health crisis is rampant voter suppression by states and localities that limits access to the ballot and jeopardizes chances that the ballots cast will be counted. Trump’s judicial appointments are ensuring that voter suppression is upheld by the courts.
To begin, we must preserve Lewis’ legacy—the Voting Rights Act. Seven years ago, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder “put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” as Lewis said at the time. The ruling—which eliminated preclearance of voting changes in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination—was devastating to voters who enjoyed its protection for decades and to Lewis personally. He had shepherded reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act through overwhelming support by Congress in 2006. When its constitutionality was challenged, Lewis filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court and attended oral arguments. After the Court’s ruling, he immediately went to work on restoring the Voting Rights Act. The first bill was introduced in January 2014, and it was finally passed by the House of Representatives on December 6, 2019.
Renamed after Lewis, this voting rights bill has sat at the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for 240 days. The obstruction is unforgivable, especially now. The same Republican senators who paid tribute to Lewis after his passing now even refuse to move his signature legislation. There is every reason to act. Chief Justice John Roberts infamously noted in his Shelby County opinion that “[o]ur country has changed.” But the floodgates of voter suppression that opened immediately after the Court’s ruling—imposing strict voter ID requirements, ending early voting, closing polling places, purging voters, and redrawing election districts—provide overwhelming evidence of modern-day voting discrimination to support restoring the Voting Rights Act to full strength.
Congress must also do everything within its power to ensure the health and safety of American citizens as they participate in November’s elections. The primaries showed us the great risks facing voters as they try to exercise their civic obligation. As infections and fatalities rise across the country, it is imperative we shield voters from the dangers of coronavirus. We have fought too long and too hard for the right to vote to allow this pandemic to hijack our democracy.
Specifically, Congress needs to provide states with $3.6 billion in funding and election guardrails to ensure full and safe voter participation. States must offer alternative methods for voting, including voting by mail and in-person voting. We must ensure that the postal service is not weaponized and that ballots will be securely returned, processed, and counted in a fair and accurate manner. Given the history and significance of in-person voting to the Black community, it is essential that in-person voting be expanded to ensure voter safety. Early voting must be available, as well as expanded voting hours and curbside voting. Election Day voting must be safely administered and fully available with sufficient precincts, ballots, and poll workers to match the number of eligible voters. Online and same-day voter registration should be available, and we should rely on paper ballots instead of touchscreen machines that are less safe and reliable. Importantly, all of this must be implemented now. Early voting is about to commence, and we can’t afford to wait until November to get this right.
Last March, we commemorated the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, in which Lewis risked his life to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act. I was marching on Edmund Pettus Bridge when the ailing congressman appeared, to urge us to continue the fight and “to vote like we’ve never voted before.” We must honor his request to redeem the soul of this nation. And we must do so while protecting the health and safety of our communities. Our democracy is depending on it.