Fifty-Three Years After “Bloody Sunday” We Have Less Voting Rights

Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II join hands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

It’s been 53 years since our sisters and brothers linked arms and took the brave walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. As they made their way over the bridge, they were encountered by state troopers who beat and knocked them down with batons, tear gas and fists. They were marching for the right to vote, the right to be treated equally, and the right to be seen as American citizens. Today, we are still pushing back against many of the same battles that we were fighting more than five decades ago.

There are extremist politicians who are more determined than ever to suppress the vote. The Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision in 2013 struck down an important provision in the Voting Rights Act that helped prevent many of the voter suppression techniques we see in place today. Many in the Republican-led Congress refuse to even vote on new provisions to help ensure protections for voting rights across the country.

Unlike their forefathers and foremothers, our current politicians are not implementing blatantly racist laws like Jim Crow in order to keep the poor and communities of color from the polls, but rather, they are putting in place laws that they claim are equally affecting everyone in the population. States like Ohio and North Carolina, for example, cut down their early voting periods. This not only makes it harder for those who work weekends, long hours and night shifts to cast their vote, but also increases voting lines at the polls which can discourage voters from participating, especially if they only have a limited amount of time to vote. Kansas passed a law requiring voters to show proof of citizenship which has been proven to disproportionately affect communities of color, the poor, elderly, disabled, students and the homeless. Numerous states have closed down polling places which can disenfranchise poor voters who often don’t have access to the vehicles or public transportation needed to get them to their new polling locations. Other states have conducted voter roll purges, often undoing voters’ registration without their knowledge.

Many states have also implemented voter ID laws that require voters to show some form of identification at the polls. While this seems like a fairly simple rule, it has been proven to disproportionately affect the poor, communities of color, and senior citizens. It’s been found that voter ID laws doubled the voter turnout gap between whites and Latinos during general elections, and nearly doubled the white and black voter turnout gap during primary elections. According to a newly released study, only 3.6 percent of registered white voters did not have any form of state or federal ID compared to 7.5 percent of registered black voters. In Alabama, the state closed DMV offices so that those who wanted to obtain IDs to vote could not. These closures included eight out of the top 10 counties with the largest non-white registered voting population. It also included the top five counties that voted Democratic in the 2012 presidential election. This is just plain wrong.

Extremist politicians across this nation are fighting hard to undermine the people’s right to vote, because they know that, if united, our voices are powerful and stronger together. Our right to vote is one of the most important rights we can have as citizens in this country and that is why these politicians are working so hard to take it away from us. Extremists, especially Republicans, use race-based voter suppression to win an office, but once in office they use the power gained to pass policies that hurt communities of color and the poor. By making it harder to vote they are ensuring that they can get away with passing policies in office that do these groups the most harm. It allows them to redraw political boundaries, leading to extreme gerrymandering and further control over the legislature. It allows them to perpetuate violence by refusing to enact stricter laws on gun control despite an increase in the number of mass shootings. It allows them to ignore the signs of climate change and to dismantle government safety net programs that were designed to help the poor. They’ve been able to block immigrants from rightfully entering our country. They’ve stripped healthcare coverage from millions of Americans. Thirteen states that have passed voter suppression laws opted not to expand Medicaid benefits, thus denying medical coverage and support for over a million people.

These politicians should be fighting to make changes to our voting laws that help ensure every American has an opportunity to cast their ballot, instead of fighting to suppress our voices. We need to implement automatic voter registration for American citizens once they turn 18. States should expand the amount of early voting days so that people aren’t forced to wait in long lines or take time off from work in order to vote. The court systems need to stand up to the racialized gerrymandering of congressional districts and work to redraw our district maps so that representation is fair for every citizen, not just a select few. The extremists in the Republican-led Congress refuse to even consider these simple but powerful measures because they know that these tactics will empower the voices of those who have been silenced for far too long.

This past weekend in Selma, I joined my brothers and sisters and re-enacted the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that moral leaders made 53 years ago. When we reached the place where police officers had struck marchers down, we paused and looked backwards, symbolizing that despite the efforts of those who came before us, our politicians are implementing immoral and destructive policies that are taking us backwards.

Standing down is not an option! The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is working with moral activists and movements across this country to fight back against extremism so that we can have a nation whose laws benefit every person in our country no matter who they are. But we cannot do this alone. We must move forward together.