If there was ever a day that signaled the voting rights of minorities were under renewed and serious attack, it was June 25, 2013, the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a critical portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act had sought to prohibit racial discrimination, rightly calling it an “insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.”
The court’s majority argued that the needs of racial protection are quite different than they were 50 years ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, we are seeing growing attempts to suppress the right to vote among minority communities. Not only are the voting rights of Black Americans under continued attack, their very lives are at stake. The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement is just one horrific example.
The thousands and thousands of protestors who have taken to the streets of American cities would also likely beg to differ with that court decision. And that is why Congress must pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would repair the damage done to the VRA through the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision.
In the past week America has mourned the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a lion of the Civil Rights Movement, and congressman of Georgia’s 5th congressional district. Many words have been written and spoken by dignitaries about his courageous life. But as history has taught us, words without action are often meaningless. Rep. Lewis knew this. In a scathing letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, written just eight days before his death, Lewis spoke of his “profound concern and disappointment” that the US Department of Justice had ignored the mission of protecting the voting rights of minorities.
The seeming abandonment of protecting these rights can be seen in Florida, as members of the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis have fought at every step to block the constitutional right to vote for 1.4 million ex-felons, a right that was restored by nearly 65% of the electorate with the 2018 passage of Amendment 4. Since the legislature passed Senate Bill 7066, the League of Women Voters of Florida and partnering allied organizations are now in the highest levels of the court system trying to undo the damage it did, essentially attaching a modern-day poll tax to these ex-felons' right to vote. How is this any different from the poll taxes that were imposed upon People of Color decades earlier?
If we truly want to honor the life of John Lewis, Congress must turn its attention to hearing — and passing — the Voting Rights Advancement Act. It would be a large step in the right direction of what People of Color are crying out for in America. That is, to be treated with dignity and rightfully viewed as equal and deserving of the same rights as white American citizens.
As Lewis wrote in his letter: “The record is clear. A rampant war is being waged against minorities’ voting rights...across the nation...Time is of the essence to preserve the integrity and promise of our democracy.”
With border patrol agents seizing protestors from the streets of Portland, throwing them into unmarked vehicles and sometimes seriously injuring them, Lewis’s words resonate more deeply every day.
Our democracy and our sacred right to vote are under threat in America. If our government truly wants to begin the healing process, there is no better place to start than with the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Patricia Brigham is president of The League of Women Voters of Florida.
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