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56 years later, the fight for voting rights continues

The late Congressman John Lewis once said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part.” On the 56th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, his words have never meant more than they do right now. 

Voting is one of the most fundamental features of our democracy — so fundamental and sacred that Black Americans risked their lives to fight for their right to cast a ballot. I am always reminded of the hundreds of activists who were nearly killed marching from Selma to Montgomery for fair voting laws. One of those activists was Congressman John Lewis, who was just 25-years-old when he was beaten by Alabama police while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just five months later, the Voting Rights Act became federal law — nearly guaranteeing Black Americans the right to vote. 

Now, 56 years after the passage of the VRA, we’re reminded of how sacred our right to vote really is and how easily it can be suppressed. Since the 2020 presidential election — which saw the highest voter turnout in more than a century — more than 389 bills restricting voting rights have been introduced in 48 states across the country. These restrictive bills, fueled by a disinformation campaign led by the former President and his Republican allies, will further hurt the same marginalized groups that the VRA was created to protect. 

As changemakers, our work to advance and protect social, racial and economic justice is directly linked to the fight for voting rights. So how can we best cut through polarization, help others better understand the ways these bills are meant to harm underrepresented voters and build a collaborative and inclusive movement toward equitable voting rights outcomes? 

1. Lead with shared values 

Voting is not a partisan issue, it is an American issue. Regardless of our racial or cultural background, or our political ideology, it is our right as American citizens to use this fundamental feature of democracy to ensure that our government — federal, state and local — is representative of our collective values and aspirations. Leading with this shared value can break through the barriers of support that partisan talking points can not. 

This is something that our friends at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) — who led the largest expansion of voting rights in America since the passage of the Voting Rights Act do well. FRRC’s mission is to ensure that all returning citizens, people with past convictions, in the state of Florida have the right and access to voting. They work across party lines with state legislators who understand the value of having everyone’s voice represented in our democracy. 

By staying true to one of America’s core values: a representative democracy, they were able to break through partisanship, with nearly 65 percent of Floridians voting to restore voting rights for most people with past felony convictions. 

2. Speak to the impact of undermining the VRA through an intersectional lens 

While the Voting Rights Act is a major legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, we must acknowledge the ways in which its passage led to fairer laws and accessibility standards for other marginalized groups. In 1975, the VRA was amended to include protections and assistance in registering and voting for English as a second language and non-English speaking citizens. The VRA was extended in 1982 and in 1984, provisions were added to ensure that voting was easily accessible for disabled and elderly Americans

Now, faced with continued efforts to suppress voting accessibility, these groups will be forced to overcome unnecessary obstacles just to participate in the process. Just last month, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee delivered another blow to the VRA, as well as to Indigenous groups across the state, criminalizing how they have historically cast their ballots. The Court ruled in favor of Arizona’s decision to restrict the circumstances in which vote-by-mail ballots can be turned in on behalf of someone else. Due to the remoteness of tribal lands, the lack of transportation among those who live there and confusion over precinct maps, this ruling will have a detrimental impact on their ability to vote. 

Limitations on vote-by-mail, ballot drop-boxes, early voting and overly aggressive voter ID requirements will have an impact on every group that the VRA was created to protect. It is critical that we communicate all of the ways the VRA made voting more accessible, and how undermining it will have a ripple effect among these groups.  

3. Support BIPOC-led organizations doing the work 

Passionate, dedicated community organizers across the country worked tirelessly to ensure that communities of color have equitable access to voting. For decades, Black, Latinx and Native communities have been ignored, underrepresented and suppressed from engaging in the political process. It was the hard work of organizations like Black Voters Matter, Four Directions, MiJente, New Georgia Project and many others that led to high turnout among these demographics — turnout that flipped key states like Arizona and Georgia — signaling the collective power of these groups. 

Now, after harnessing this power, it is these same communities that are directly threatened by the hundreds of restrictive voting bills being introduced in states across the country. BIPOC-led organizations will continue to cultivate community activism beyond election cycles, and it is critical that we uplift and support their important work well into the future — and not only when politicians need their votes. 

Our democracy is better when we all participate, but even after more than five decades as federal law, the VRA is fragile and recent Supreme Court rulings have weakened its ability to protect marginalized groups from voter suppression. As we honor the 56th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it is incumbent on each of us to remember that our work to ensure a representative democracy is never over and that we must continue the fight to protect the right to vote for all Americans — especially those who have been historically marginalized and suppressed from exercising this fundamental right.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 4, 2021 at 07:10 am and is filed under Campaign planning, Coalition, connection and network building, Crisis communication, Frame, narrative and message development, Opposition containment and Policymaker engagement. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.