Today, Americans across the country marched for voting rights.
They recognize that our right to have a say in our government is slipping out of our hands. At a rally in Washington, Martin Luther King III told the crowd, “Our country is backsliding to the unconscionable days of Jim Crow. And some of our senators are saying, ‘Well, we can’t overcome the filibuster,’.... I say to you today: Get rid of the filibuster. That is a monument to white supremacy we must tear down.”
Since 1986, Republicans have worked to limit access to the polls, recognizing that when more people vote, they lose. Those restrictions took off after 2013 when, in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court gutted the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required the Department of Justice to sign off on changes to voting in states with histories of racial discrimination.
That decision opened the way to voter restrictions, but voting laws have come especially fast and furious this year. Republicans have refused to accept that the election of Democrat Joe Biden was legitimate and, in Republican-dominated states, have worked to make sure Democrats do not have the power to elect another president in the future. Between January 1 and July 14 of this year, at least 18 states have enacted 30 laws restricting access to the vote.
Their plan is clearly to make sure those states stay Republican, no matter what the voters actually want.
This lack of competition destroys Democrats’ chances of winning elections, but it also pushes the Republican Party further and further to the right. With states sewn up for a Republican victory, potential Republican presidential candidates have to worry less about winning a general election than about winning the primaries.
Because primary voters are always the most energized and partisan voters, and because for the Republicans that currently means staunch Trump supporters, those vying to be Republican front runners are the Trump extremists: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for example, and even Florida’s Matt Gaetz and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently have been touring the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire attacking mask requirements and vaccine mandates, critical race theory and the infrastructure bills currently under discussion in Congress.
Vote-rigging in Republican-dominated states leads logically to a Republican extremist winning the White House in 2024.
Congress has before it two voting rights bills that would help to restore a level playing field between the two parties. One, the For the People Act, protects the right to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering, limits corporate money in elections, and requires new ethics rules for elected officials. The House passed the For the People Act in March.
On Tuesday, August 24, the House passed the second of the two voting rights bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, also known as H.R. 4, which expands the system of preclearance that had been in the 1965 Voting Rights Act before 2013. Under the John Lewis bill, the Department of Justice has to sign off on voting changes not simply in states with a longstanding history of discrimination, but also in states anywhere in the country that have shown a pattern of violations of voting rights.
Both of these measures are stalled in the Senate, where Republicans, who insist that states, not the federal government, must have the final say in who gets to vote, have vowed to filibuster them. Unless the Democrats can agree to carve out an exception to the filibuster for voting rights, the measures will die.
And today, Americans across the country marched for voting rights.
Today is the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was on this day in 1963 that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Dr. King anchored the speeches for the day, though: before him spoke the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a young John Lewis. Just 23 years old, he had been one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders, white and black students traveling together from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to challenge segregation. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” Lewis later recalled.
Two years later, as Lewis and 600 marchers hoping to register African American voters in Alabama stopped to pray at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, mounted police troopers charged the marchers, beating them with clubs and bullwhips. They fractured Lewis’s skull.
The attack in Selma created momentum for voting rights. Just after the attack, President Lyndon Baines Johnson called for Congress to pass a national voting rights bill. It did. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act authorizing federal supervision of voter registration in districts where African Americans were historically underrepresented.
Today is also the anniversary of the longest filibuster ever conducted by a single senator. On this date in 1957, South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond began his filibuster to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1957, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was designed to protect the right of African Americans to vote, using the federal government to overrule the state laws that limited voter registration and kept Black voters from the polls.
On a day that harks back to both John Lewis’s fight for voting rights and Strom Thurmond’s fight against them, I wonder which man’s principles will shape our future.