Among the many accomplishments in his all-too-short life, perhaps none was as important to Dr. Martin Luther King as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King understood that the single most important tool that African-Americans could use to unravel the worst elements of state-sanctioned discrimination was the ballot box. Decades before the Civil Rights movement emerged, communities across the nation had contrived a system of electoral exclusion that depended on a witch’s brew of poll taxes, literacy tests and “good character” clauses. When these obstacles failed to dissuade potential voters, violence or threats of violence offered a useful and effective supplement to the campaign of disenfranchisement.
In the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, Dr. King boldly decided to press President Lyndon Johnson to explicitly defend voting rights. The early months of 1965 saw Dr. King and other civil rights activists risk their lives in places such as Selma and Marion, Alabama to highlight the extremes to which some communities would go to deny African Americans the franchise. Images of bloodied civil rights protesters outraged the nation. That summer, President Johnson, surrounded by Dr. King and Rosa Parks, signed the Voting Rights Act into law at a White House ceremony. No other piece of legislation had such a positive effect on the ability of all Americans–irrespective of race, ethnic origin or native language–to participate in our democratic system.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the case of Shelby v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act has been crippled. By undermining the ability of the federal government to oversee electoral policies and procedures at the state and local levels of government, a slim majority of the Supreme Court has created a terrible rollback of voting rights in America. Republican-led State Legislatures in a number of states have passed a series of laws that make it more difficult for Americans to register to vote and cast their ballots. In 2015, according to the Brennan Center for Justice and New York University School of Law, at least 113 bills to restrict access to voting and registration were introduced in 33 states. In 15 states, new restrictions on voting and registering will be in effect this year and will almost certainly have an impact on the 2016 national elections.