Our democracy is in a state of moral crisis. As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act this year, we’ve found ourselves with a political system that lets the most wealthy Americans spend a billion dollars to influence an election, but effectively blocks countless low-income people, students, and people of color from casting even a single ballot. And this disturbing reality is unlikely to change unless we demand action now.
Until recently, the history of political participation in America was one of forward progress, a timeline marked by an ever-increasing expansion of voting rights. The 15th Amendment in 1870. Women in 1920. And after decades of bloody struggle, the Civil Rights Movement—with the strong participation of Americans of faith—seemed to achieve true equality in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act is most celebrated for protecting the right to vote for African Americans, but it has also helped ensure that students, low-income Americans, and the elderly have been able to cast their ballots.
However, in 2013 the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act—one that required states with a record of racially-motivated voter disenfranchisement to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes to voter laws.
The result? A flood of new restrictive voting laws are now blocking low-income people, people of color, students, and others from the ballot box. According to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, during the 2015 legislative session alone lawmakers from 33 states have introduced or carried over 113 bills that would restrict access to registration and voting.
What do these laws look like?
They impose barriers that keep low-income people, people of color, disabled people, and other historically disenfranchised communities away from polls. Among these barriers are strict photo identification requirements, cuts to same-day voter registration, and reductions in the number of early voting days. In a state like Alabama, which implemented a strict voter ID requirement last year and just last month closed 31 DMV offices, the result is that poor, rural voters—large numbers of them African-American—will not have easy access to the IDs they need to vote without traveling to a different county and likely missing shifts at work to do so. Faced with these kinds of barriers, and struggling to get by in our age of extreme income inequality, how many low-income Americans can actually afford to pay these 21st century poll taxes to make it to the ballot box on Election Day?
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Before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, laws like these would have likely never won approval from the Department of Justice. They would have been recognized and stopped for what they clearly are—attempts to disenfranchise certain classes of voters. Now, many are being challenged in the courts, but they’ll likely languish there for years in never-ending legal battles as election after election passes by.
Congress’ hyper-partisan “leadership” has refused to move forward with a badly needed reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act that would mend what the Supreme Court has broken.
What can people of faith—and all Americans—do about this moral crisis? Together, we need to convince Congress to act while also doing everything we can to protect voting rights in the states we call home. That means marching, protesting, petitioning and making our voices heard. We must expect no compromise, no consideration from those who seek to warp the electoral system in their favor.
To start, join the thousands of Americans who are calling on Congress to restore voting rights protections by signing the VRAforToday petition.
If you want to go a step further, look for opportunities to join protests and actions of civil disobedience. My organization, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, for example, recently organized vigils across the country to draw attention to voting rights. You can expect more actions like this from us and many other groups if Congress continues to stall on the bill before next year’s crucial national election.
To take direct action that protects voters, volunteer as a poll monitor with organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. They need help assisting voters who are facing hardship or confusion from new voting or registration laws, or monitoring polling sites for discrimination on Election Day.
Other organizations doing great work on this front include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Rock the Vote. Sign up for emails from these groups and you will find many more opportunities to get involved.
This is a tough fight, but it’s a fight we can win if we all pitch in. Together, we have the power to force congressional action just as our parents and grandparents did fifty years ago when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Let’s make them proud.