The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which turned 50 in August, is widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement and the most important civil rights law of the 20th century. When he signed the legislation at the U.S. Capitol, President Lyndon Johnson described the act as the final victory against America’s original sin of slavery. “Today we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds,” Johnson said.
The act had an immediate transformative impact. Literacy tests were suspended across the South, the attorney general filed lawsuits successfully challenging the poll tax, and government observers were sent to monitor elections in the South’s most segregated areas. Within days of the act’s signing, federal examiners were registering black voters at a rapid clip in places like Selma, Ala.
The law has enfranchised millions of Americans over the last five decades and enabled the election of the country’s first black president.
But the act didn’t end the debate over voting rights, as Johnson predicted. In recent years there has been a proliferation of new measures to tighten access to the ballot, such as requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, shutting down voter-registration drives, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons, purging the voter rolls, and mandating government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot.
After the 2010 election, half the states in the country, nearly all under Republican control, passed laws making it harder to vote, with the aim of making the electorate older, whiter, and more conservative instead of younger, more diverse, and more progressive.
Pennsylvania was one of them. In 2012, House Republican leader Mike Turzai predicted the state’s strict voter-ID law would “allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” The law was ultimately blocked in court because “hundreds of thousands of electors in Pennsylvania lack compliant ID,” wrote Judge Bernard McGinley, and the state “wholly failed to show any evidence of in-person voter fraud” to justify the measure.
Pennsylvania has since moved in a different direction under Gov. Wolf, adopting reforms to expand access to the ballot, such as online voter registration. More than 44,000 people have submitted voter-registration applications online since the program launched in late August.
The movement to restrict the franchise gained steam after the Supreme Court gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, ruling that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer have to approve their voting changes with the federal government.
Texas implemented a strict voter-ID law – which allows someone to vote with a handgun permit but not a state-university-issued ID – that had previously been blocked under the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina passed a sweeping restructuring of its election system that repealed or curtailed every voting reform in the state, such as cutting early voting and eliminating same-day voter registration. Alabama – the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act – passed a voter-ID law similar to Texas’ and then in September announced it would close 31 Department of Motor Vehicle offices in the state where voters sought to obtain the newly required ID, many in majority-black counties.
In March, many members of Congress visited Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march, led by Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), who nearly died marching in Selma. “Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote,” President Obama said in Selma. “One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year.”
Few Republicans have heeded Obama’s call, opting for symbolism over substance. Twenty-one Republican members of Congress visited Selma, but only two of them have cosponsored legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act.
As a result, the 2016 election will be the first presidential contest in 50 years where voters will not have the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. What should be the most settled right in a democracy – the right to vote – remains the most contested.