58 Years After Bloody Sunday, the Fight for Voting Rights Continues
By Zaria Mariko Guignard
On March 7, 1965, 600 people began to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to confront then Governor Wallace to protest the violation of their constitutional rights to vote and demand justice for Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was brutally murdered by police during a previous peaceful voting rights march in February. As we commemorate the legacy of the lives of civil rights activists who marched from Selma to Montgomery 58 years ago and the contribution they made to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it’s important to remember we still have much more work to do to protect the right to vote, including for the Asian American community.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States and have been the fastest-growing group of eligible voters over roughly the past two decades.
While we make up 4.7% of the electorate, we continue to see persistent gaps in voter participation data for our community. In presidential elections from 2012 to 2020, Asian Americans saw a 11.8–16.8% participation gap when compared to their non-Hispanic White counterparts.
On March 7, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14019 Promoting Access to Voting, an innovative EO that has the potential to make registration and voting more accessible for millions of Americans, including Asian Americans and other communities historically excluded from the political process.
Through the EO, President Biden directed federal agencies to “consider ways to expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote and to obtain information about, and participate in, the electoral process.”
On the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and two years since President Biden issued the EO, a diverse coalition made up of 53 individual organizations — including voting, health, immigration, faith, labor, environmental, education, housing, justice reform, and others — have issued a progress report, Strengthening Democracy: A Progress Report on Federal Agency Action to Promote Access to Voting, to highlight the initial progress that has been made and explain the critical actions that must be taken to fulfill the promise of Executive Order 14019.
The progress report evaluates 10 federal agencies — Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Department of Education (ED), General Services Administration (GSA), Indian Health Service (IHS), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), Department of the Treasury, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — on their progress in fully achieving the potential of the Voting Access EO.
The findings of the report are clear, agencies are far from meeting the full potential of the EO. Most federal agencies have room for improvement in their implementation to expand access to voting.
Out of 10 agencies evaluated, only 3 (Interior, VA, and Treasury) are “on the right track,” 4 (HHS, GSA, US Marshals Service, and Bureau of Prisons) have “work to do” and 3 (IHS, Ed, and USCIS) are “falling behind.” These tiers are based on each individual agency’s milestone they must accomplish to see the full potential of the Voting Access EO actualized. The evaluations are measured by milestones, including making a benchmark commitment to create effective voter registration opportunities for communities traditionally excluded from the political process, showing timely progress on implementation of benchmark commitments, engaging in other affective activities, and finally achieving full potential.
As stated in the progress report, 77% of white eligible voters are registered to vote, compared to only 69% of Black eligible voters, 61% of Latinx eligible voters, 64% of Asian-American eligible voters, and 63% of Native-American eligible voters. Only 54% of foreign-born eligible voters cast their vote in 2016, compared to 62% of U.S.-born eligible voters. The disparity of turnout rates of naturalized citizens, the majority of whom are people of color and who now represent 1 in 10 eligible voters, could be dramatically improved if the EO was fully implemented by USCIS.
For Asian Americans, immigration is foundational to our American story.
Creating a more vibrant democracy requires not just including but pulling up a seat at the table for newly naturalized citizens to participate in our democracy. USCIS must include robust voter registration services in the naturalization process for all new citizens.
Here are 5 other impactful actions agencies should implement before the end of the year to increase access to voting and strengthen our democracy:
1. VA expanding the provision of effective voter registration services to veterans who sign-up for healthcare to more states using the National Voter Registration Act designation process.
2. HHS adding an effective voter registration opportunity into the application for benefits on HealthCare.gov (just as state healthcare exchanges do).
3. IHS adding a voter registration opportunity, including assistance, to patient interactions at Indian Health Service facilities.
4. ED adding a voter registration opportunity for applicants of federal student aid and releasing a toolkit and official guidance for all institutions of higher learning on their legal obligations to provide voter registration opportunities under the Higher Education Act.
5. GSA making significant improvements to Vote.gov so it is more user friendly and an accessible resource to people regardless of geography and to people with disabilities.
Implementation of the executive order could result in 3.5 million additional voter registration applications a year, but time is of the essence.
If federal agencies do not act soon, the Voting Access EO will be a lost opportunity. Agencies must start work now to follow through on the EO, so that the various programs will be operational and in place in time for citizens to register for the federal elections in 2024. While a few agencies have made noteworthy progress, most have either made minimal progress on their initial strong commitments or have left important opportunities on the table. Most federal agencies have significant room for improvement in their implementation of the Voting Access EO.
As we remember Bloody Sunday and the hard-fought battles of civil rights leaders who came before us, Advancing Justice | AAJC calls on President Biden and the agencies to take action over the coming months to fulfill their commitment on equitable access to voting for all Americans.
Zaria Mariko Guignard is the Census & Voting Rights Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.