55 Years After Selma, Voting Rights are Under Threat Again

In 1965, Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama proved a turning point in the fight for voting rights for all Americans. Now those same rights are being eroded by Republicans.


These days, 55 years later, I have an entirely different set of worries about Selma. I fear that a growing wave of voter suppression laws threatens its legacy.

Selma is not some outlier in the American experience, President Obama declared in the moving speech he delivered in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. If Selma taught us anything, its that our work is never done, he warned.

Today, Obamas warning seems even more relevant than when he first uttered it. The Supreme Court had already taken a major step during his administration to undo the impact of Selma. In 2013, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Court in a 5-to-4 ruling struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain preclearance from the Justice Department or the U. S. District Court in Washington before they make any change in their voting laws.

That 2013 ruling has been pivotal for a series of voter-suppression actions that have taken place in the South, and it has encouraged voter suppression already underway in the North. As the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School notes, After the 2010 election, state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote. Overall 25 states have put in new restrictions on voting that have made getting to the polls harder, especially for the poor and minorities.

The laws vary from strict voter ID photo requirements, which are a special burden on anyone who does not have a drivers license, to voting prohibitions for people with criminal convictions. How far the next round of voter- suppression efforts will go is the only question. In 2018, the Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 decision in Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute approved an Ohio failure-to-vote law that is triggered by anyone who does not engage in voter activity for two years and does not respond to a notice from the state. That person is erased from the Ohio voter rolls if he or she does not vote in the next four years.

For todays Republican Party, which has all but given up on winning over African-American and Hispanic voters, the new voter-suppression measures reflect their version of the lessons of Selma. The Republican leadership, knowing the policies it has committed itself to, sees permanent defeat ahead if the countrys increasingly diverse population is enfranchised at anywhere near its strength.

If there is an analogy for the present moment, it is the time in the late 19th century when Reconstruction ended and the South began passing Jim Crow laws. Todays voter suppression laws are the modern equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests. The difference is that todays voter-suppression efforts are national in scope and practiced as selectively in the North as in the South.

We have in essence created a broad, new category of politically less entitled citizens. We expect those who do not own cars to possess the kinds of photo IDs those with driver licenses naturally have. We tell those who have paid their debt to society by a stint in prison to go on paying that debt even after they are freed. We penalize those who skip election cycles by setting up registration hurdles for them when they finally find an election they want to participate in.

What we need is a modern Voting Rights Act that will do away with such voter- suppression practices once and for all. In this regard the example of Selma, which paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, remains our best guide to the present. The obstacles to voting that have been created over the last decade on a state-by-state basis can be swept away with clarifying national legislation much as the obstacles to voting that the South created over decades spanning two centuries were swept away by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section IV of Article I of the Constitution leaves setting the times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives to each state, but Section IV does not stop there. It invites change by declaring, Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.

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