Vot­ing is the cen­ter­piece of our democ­racy

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - JESSE JACK­SON jjack­son@rain­bow­push.org | @RevJJack­son

Au­gust 6 is the 55th an­niver­sary of the Vot­ing Rights Act. If the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments passed af­ter the Civil War — the 13th, 14th and 15th Amend­ments — were the “sec­ond found­ing” of democ­racy in Amer­ica, the Vot­ing Rights Act, which af­ter nearly a cen­tury of seg­re­ga­tion gave le­gal ef­fect to the 15th Amend­ment that out­lawed dis­crim­i­na­tion in the right to vote, should be con­sid­ered the “third found­ing.”

Selma was its Philadel­phia. John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyn­don John­son were its found­ing fa­thers. Over the last decade, the Act and the right to vote have come un­der un­re­lent­ing at­tack, an at­tack that is now es­ca­lat­ing dra­mat­i­cally.

The Vot­ing Rights Act out­lawed the var­i­ous tricks and traps that states in the South used to de­prive Blacks of the right to vote. It out­lawed dis­crim­i­na­tion against racial and lan­guage mi­nori­ties, pro­vid­ing His­pan­ics with pro­tec­tion, among oth­ers. It iden­ti­fied states with an egre­gious his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­quired pre-clear­ance of any changes in their elec­tion laws by the Jus­tice De­part­ment.

The re­sults were im­me­di­ate. African Amer­i­can, His­panic Amer­i­can and Asian Amer­i­can regis­tra­tion in­creased dra­mat­i­cally.

In the for­mer Con­fed­er­ate states, African Amer­i­cans elected to the state leg­is­la­tors in­creased from three to 176 in 20 years. Lo­cal elected of­fi­cials went from less than 1,500 to 10,500. In 1964, there were five African Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Congress and no sen­a­tors. Now, there are 51 rep­re­sen­ta­tives, three sen­a­tors and two non-vot­ing del­e­gates. The stun­ning in­crease in po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion by peo­ple of color cul­mi­nated in the elec­tion of Barack Obama to the pres­i­dency in 2008.

The re­ac­tion to the law be­gan al­most im­me­di­ately. Repub­li­cans un­der Pres­i­dent Nixon sculpted their in­fa­mous “South­ern Strat­egy” to cap­ture white vot­ers in the South. In 2013, Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice John Roberts, in a shame­less act of leg­is­lat­ing from the bench, mar­shaled the right-wing ma­jor­ity of the Court in Shelby v. Holder to de­cide that the ge­o­graph­i­cal fo­cus of the act was “out of date,” de­spite the fact that it had just been re­newed by over­whelm­ing bi­par­ti­san ma­jori­ties of both houses of Congress af­ter ex­tended in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Roberts’ as­ser­tion that dis­crim­i­na­tion was be­hind us was im­me­di­ately be­lied by a flood of ac­tions aimed at mak­ing it harder for Blacks and other mi­nori­ties to vote. With­out prior re­view, Repub­li­can-led states, par­tic­u­larly those in the South, en­acted par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing, dual pri­maries, and vot­ing roll purges; and closed vot­ing sites, limited early vot­ing, re­quired spe­cific forms of voter ID and more.

To­day, this re­ac­tion has moved to new ex­tremes. Don­ald Trump — aided and abet­ted by Repub­li­can sen­a­tors and gov­er­nors — has sought to dis­credit vot­ing by mail, block­ing funds for the U.S. Postal Ser­vice and the states to gear up for mass vot­ing by mail, the sen­si­ble, safe way to vote in the midst of the pan­demic.

Trump has even ar­gued that only those votes counted on Elec­tion Day should de­ter­mine the elec­tion, know­ing that a full count for mas­sive vot­ing by mail will nec­es­sar­ily take sev­eral days. Not sur­pris­ingly, polls show a higher per­cent­age of Democrats plan to vote by mail, while most Repub­li­cans plan to vote in per­son.

Once more, our elec­tions are en­dan­gered by par­ti­san, racially bi­ased ef­forts to con­strict the right to vote. Once more, it is time for a re­newed drive to pro­tect the vote, the cen­ter­piece of democ­racy. A sen­si­ble re­form agenda, sum­ma­rized by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in his ad­dress at the me­mo­rial for John Lewis, in­cludes mak­ing vot­ing day a na­tional hol­i­day, ex­tend­ing early vot­ing, hav­ing ef­fi­cient and wide­spread vote by mail, au­to­matic and same-day voter regis­tra­tion, and strength­en­ing of the Vot­ing Rights Act.

Im­por­tantly, sen­a­tors El­iz­a­beth Warren and Dick Durbin have taken up the cause of amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion to guar­an­tee the right to vote, a guar­an­tee that shock­ingly does not now ex­ist.

En­forc­ing the right to vote should not be con­tro­ver­sial. It should en­joy sup­port across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. How­ever, there are al­ways those who want to limit that right for their own po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. Re­form is in­vari­ably met with re­ac­tion.

The right to vote won’t be in­her­ited; each gen­er­a­tion must fight to pre­serve and to ex­tend it. Now more than ever, those who care about our democ­racy must rally to pro­tect that right once more.

C.B. SCHMELTER/CHAT­TANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS VIA AP

A worker at an early vot­ing site in Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee.

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