Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. President Lyndon B. Johnson, upon signing the landmark legislation, declared: “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield. ... And today we strike away the last major shackle of ... fierce and ancient bonds.”
There was an overwhelming need for this law. For 100 years following the end of the Civil War, millions of African-Americans were denied the right to vote through a vast array of state-sanctioned methods, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Because these methods were so effective, the number of registered African-American voters in certain states was extremely low. The Voting Rights Act sought to right these fundamental wrongs.
As a result of this landmark legislation, the registration of African-Americans substantially increased. In Mississippi, the percentage jumped to 54 percent from 7 percent in just three years. A little over 40 years after the act’s enactment, America elected its first African-American president.
Although the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act should be a time of celebration, I am disheartened that its critical protections are under siege. Two years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, one of the act’s central tenets. Jurisdictions with long histories of voting discrimination are no longer subject to federal scrutiny.
In response to Shelby County, many states have enacted or are in the process of enacting harsh “second generation” obstacles to voting rights, such as restrictive voter ID laws, limits on early voting and voter registration, and bans on voting for ex-felons. Most of these measures have a disproportionate impact on minorities, seniors, young people and other historically disadvantaged individuals.
To address these serious problems, I have introduced or co-sponsored several measures that will restore the vitality and effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act:
■ I am the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act, which, in response to Shelby County, would update the coverage formula that defines which jurisdictions are subject to the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision.
■ I have co-sponsored the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which makes comprehensive improvements to the Voting Rights Act.
■ I am the lead sponsor on the Democracy Restoration Act, H.R. 1459, which creates a national standard for the restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society.
■ I have co-sponsored the Voter Empowerment Act, which modernizes our voting system by mandating the implementation of national standards for early voting, online registration and voting technology.
Fifty years ago Democrats and Republicans set partisan divisions aside to enact the Voting Rights Act. As the only member of Congress who voted for the act in 1965, I implore my colleagues to come together to protect not only all of our citizens’ right to vote, but to safeguard democracy itself.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, is America’s longest currently serving congressman.