55 Years After Bloody Sunday, We’re Still Fighting to Remove Discriminatory Barriers to the Ballot

Fifty-five years ago today, brave foot soldiers in Selma, Alabama marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge and risked everything for the right to vote. They were beaten. They were tear-gassed. Congressman John Lewis, then a young civil rights activist, had his skull fractured at the hands of Alabama state troopers. Images of what became known as Bloody Sunday horrified the nation and inspired lawmakers to act.

Five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. With the single stroke of a pen, he made good on a promise that this country had failed to fulfill for more than a century. Millions of Black Americans could finally cast a ballot, moving our nation closer to its true promise: democracy of, by, and for the people.

We know that our democracy works best when everyone can fully participate, no matter who they are. That is why Black, Brown, Asian American, and Native American people, people with disabilities, language-minority voters, and women of all races organized movements throughout our history to secure it — and why forces have always sought to take it away.

Those forces are still at work today, but the civil rights community is determined to end modern forms of voting discrimination. Last weekend in Selma, along with All Voting is Local, we launched the “And Still I Vote” campaign — a national call to action to overcome discriminatory barriers to voting. We are making it clear that we will not stop working to empower our communities and to stop efforts to silence our voices.

We’ve seen many attacks over the decades, from Selma and litigation challenging the VRA’s constitutionality immediately after it was enacted to every unsuccessful legislative attempt to water down the VRA when it came up for reauthorization. The civil rights community has weathered them all.

From its passage in 1965 and through four subsequent renewals, the VRA garnered bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress because of a fundamental belief that how you choose to vote should not determine whether you should be able to vote. We must protect this constitutional right at all costs.

That is why the Shelby County v. Holder decision that eviscerated the most important provision in the VRA was devastating. The U.S. Supreme Court is the last line of defense in protecting and upholding our constitutional rights. With Shelby, the Court decimated the most successful and powerful civil rights law in modern history and, in the process, inflicted massive damage on our democracy.

And the damage began immediately: Within minutes of the Court’s decision, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted that the state’s strict voter ID law should go into effect immediately. The following day, Alabama said it would finally start enforcing the photo ID law it had passed two years earlier. And weeks later, then-North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a monster voter suppression law (H.B. 589) that the Fourth Circuit later said targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Throughout its history, the VRA required local and state policymakers and administrators to notify federal officials of proposed voting changes and gave those officials the power to block proposals that were discriminatory. That power came from a recognition that is still relatively rare in America — that our nation’s legacy of white supremacy and its deep history of discrimination, particularly in the South, require the federal government to pay closer attention to how local and state officials manage voting practices. The VRA acknowledges that we cannot be a democracy if even one of us cannot vote.

Shelby destroyed that function and opened the floodgates for local and state officials to pass voting laws without having to ensure that they don’t discriminate against Black, Brown, Asian American, or Native American voters. And these officials did exactly what we feared they would do: Today, half of the states have more restrictive voting laws in place than they did a decade ago. Many of these changes were enacted after Shelby.

We know what these new laws do; in short, they prevent people from voting. They restrict local organizations’ ability to register new voters. They reduce early voting, limit the availability of absentee ballots, and restrict the type of identification that people can use to vote. And they purge millions of voters from the rolls without their knowledge.

These laws are merely the tip of the iceberg. Local and state policymakers restrict voting rights in many other, less visible ways. In September 2019, our sister organization released a report — “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote” — that pulls the curtain back on one of the lesser-known, but more insidious, tactics that policymakers use to discriminate against voters: moving or closing polling places.

Local officials can close polling places for many reasons — some of which are legitimate and necessary. But, as the report makes clear, the sheer scale of closures since Shelby raises many questions about what is driving so many local officials to shutter polling places, particularly in communities of color. It paints a picture that should give everyone in America pause. And, importantly, it gives members of Congress information that they must use to explore the extent to which state and local policymakers and officials are making decisions that discriminate against Black, Brown, Asian American, and Native American voters.

We saw the effects of massive poll closures this past week, when some voters in Texas waited in line for nearly seven hours to vote. Texas, a state where 39 percent of the population is Latino and 12 percent is African American, was formerly covered by Section 5 of the VRA and has closed 750 polling places since Shelby — by far the most of any state in “Democracy Diverted.” This is unacceptable.

We are determined to restore the VRA’s vital protections and to pass other legislation, like the For the People Act (H.R. 1), to strengthen our elections and our democracy. In the Shelby decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. explicitly called on Congress to address the issue. It is past time for the Senate to follow the House and pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4) to restore the law. Our democracy depends on it.