Signed into law as a federal holiday 30 years ago by President Ronald Reagan, the occasion to honor and remember Martin Luther King Jr. is also a moment to reflect on the state of democracy in the United States. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, King called it “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote.’’ His carefully chosen words highlighted the triumph of the act while signaling that there was more work to be done. For his part, King announced in his annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) a new initiative, the Political Education and Voter Registration Department. Charged with equipping poor and black voters with an understanding of the voting process and the new protections of the Voting Rights Act, King and his colleagues set out to help expand the number of registered voters. Without regard for political affiliation or outcome, this initiative championed voter education and registration as a means to allay past injustices such as poll taxes and to guide the nation toward a more free and just society.
In 1968, the first presidential election after the act’s passage, the voter turnout was 60.8 percent. Nearly 50 years later, this remains the highest voter turnout (as a percentage of voting-age population) since the civil rights era. King never got to witness the fruits of the Southern Christian Leadership Council voter initiative, as he was killed several months before Richard Nixon was elected as the 37th president.
Today, we find ourselves embattled in a partisan debate that has amounted to reducing the voting rolls in many states. In numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures, elected officials from Pennsylvania to Indiana to Wisconsin to Texas (to name just a few) have fixed their collective energies not on underemployment but on voter fraud, despite the fact that this crime is almost nonexistent. Though Reagan approved Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Nixon may have benefited from the high turnout of 1968, their Republican successors have incrementally rolled back the Voting Rights Act, undoing the great work of King, the SCLC and their allies on both sides of the aisle.
What now? The way forward begins where King’s efforts ended, with a citizen-based initiative to inform, protect and increase voters, especially young ones.
Full Article: Voter suppression is a threat to all – The Washington Post.