As a young civil rights activist, Congressman John Lewis was brutally beaten marching for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama. Lewis’s heroism spurred the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the country’s most important civil rights law.
But three years ago this week, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated the centerpiece of the law, ruling that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer needed to approve their voting changes with the federal government. “The Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said after the decision.
That means the 2016 election is the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA — and the country is witnessing the greatest rollback of voting rights since the act was passed five decades ago. This year, 17 states have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election cycle, including laws that make it harder to register to vote, cut back early voting and require strict forms of government-issued IDs to cast a ballot that millions of Americans don’t have.
These states comprise 189 electoral votes — nearly half of the Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency — and include crucial swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia. Such efforts have been overwhelmingly backed by Republicans to target Democratically leaning constituencies, particularly people of color and young voters.
The GOP’s problems with these voters have only grown worse since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. A recent Washington Post poll showed 94 percent of African-Americans and 89 percent of Hispanics have an unfavorable opinion of Trump — record lows for a GOP nominee. Given those terrible numbers, don’t be surprised if Republicans intensify efforts to make it harder to vote rather than trying to expand their political coalition.
So far, attacks on the right to vote have flown largely under the radar. While Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters argue over whether the Democratic primary was rigged (it wasn’t), far less attention has been paid to the impact and potential ramifications of GOP-backed voting restrictions. There were 21 presidential debates during the primaries but not a single question was asked about voting rights. This remains one of the most important yet least discussed issues in 2016. Before anyone votes in November, there’s a huge struggle underway that will decide how many eligible voters will be able to cast a ballot.
Lewis initiated a dramatic sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday to protest the lack of Congressional action on gun control following the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. Given the lack of attention to the dismantling of the VRA, he may soon need to lead another sit-in to call for protecting voting rights. There’s something profoundly wrong when it’s easier to buy a gun than vote in many states.