Restoring the Voting Rights Act honors John Lewis

Rep. John Lewis
Rep. John Lewis Photo: Official U.S. Congress portrait

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who died of stage four pancreatic cancer last Friday, spent his life advocating equal access to the ballot for all Americans.

Lewis nearly lost his life on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when he attempted to lead a nonviolent voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. He was beaten at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, resulting in a fractured skull.

Related: NAACP calls for boycott of North Carolina over HB2, voting rights

To honor Lewis’s life and legacy, Democratic lawmakers want to pass the 2019 Voting Rights Advancement Act that he fought for and name it the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020. The bill would reverse the deleterious damage done by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision that invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Since the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), the GOP has used a variety of tactics to suppress minority voting. Such old Jim Crow tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes, and Grandfather clauses have given way to these new tactics: random voter roll purging, changing polling locations, changing polling hours or eliminating early voting days, reducing the number of polling places, packing majority-minority districts, dividing minority districts, and the notorious voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters. They are all part and parcel of the Republican playbook.

In 2000, the outcome of the presidential race between Al Gore (D) and George W. Bush (R) was decided in a recount of Florida ballots with their infamous hanging chads. In predominately Black voting precincts – which are overwhelmingly Democratic – it was reported that piles of ballots were left uncounted.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission reported that of ballots invalidated by Florida officials, 53 percent were cast by Black voters. The vote in Florida – whose governor was George W. Bush’s brother Jeb – was settled in Bush’s favor.

In 2013, by a five-to-four Republican majority, the U. S. Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated Section four of the VRA. Section four identified problematic voting precincts with shameful histories of racial discrimination.

Not surprisingly, these precincts are generally GOP strongholds. The Court ruled that Section four of the VRA was outdated. Section four historically protected African Americans and other disenfranchised people of color.

The ruling contests a fictive post-racial premise that racial minorities – especially in the South – no longer confront discriminatory barriers voting, in part because Barack Obama’s election supposedly disproves that the barriers exist.

At the time, the VRA applied to nine states in South: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

While many of us would like to think voter suppression only happens in the South, let me disabuse you of the notion. Scores of counties and municipalities in the North – like NYC, the Bronx, and my borough of Brooklyn – were covered in the VRA, too.

However, after the Shelby County v. Holder decision, North Carolina targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision” with its voter ID law after the Black vote increased by 51.1 percent in the state from 2000 to 2012, according to a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a 2017 decision.

In 2018, the epic gubernatorial battle in Georgia between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp was a brazen example of how the Republican power grab worked. Kemp, while running for governor, was Georgia’s secretary of state, overseeing the state’s elections. He was responsible for the “exact match” policy, which required that a voter’s names on their IDs “exactly match” information on voter rolls, needlessly disenfranchising people for misspellings, using a middle initial, or missing hyphens.

According to the Associated Press, 53,000 applications were put on hold. Seventy percent were from Black voters.

The GOP tactics to keep people of color from voting also created challenges for transgender voters, who may not have had a government-issued photo ID reflecting their gender identity. According to the Williams Institute, of the 137,000 transgender people who have transitioned and were eligible to vote, approximately 57 percent (78,000) may not have had the appropriate ID.

Allowing American voters a more relaxed and stress-free trip to their voting precincts should be a no-brainer, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) voiced opposition to making Election Day a federal holiday last year.

And the For the People Act of 2019, introduced in the U.S. House last year, would do just that. He mocked the legislation as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

The bill would “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and other purposes” and improve access for voters with disabilities and voter turnout. It’d reform automatic voter registration and felon re-enfranchisement.

In other words, the bill would modernize a century-old bankrupt voting system to mirror America today; thus, allowing for a participatory democracy.

Lewis said, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

To honor John Lewis, good trouble this November election would be to vote out our present Republican thug-ocracy. As voters, we don’t have to capitulate to the powers that be, because the power of the people is greater than the people in power.

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