By U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act – one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation to be enacted during the tumultuous 1960s. The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965, was a result of the continued and egregious denials of the voting rights of African American citizens and other minorities across our nation.
The right to vote is one of the most sacred rights in the U.S. Constitution. Despite the fact that the 15th amendment had enfranchised African Americans, throughout the South a variety of methods were used to deny African Americans and other minorities their legal rights. From intimidation to physical violence to literacy tests and polls taxes, African Americans were routinely denied their constitutional right to vote.
Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Johnson made passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) a priority. Passage of the VRA gave teeth to the 15th amendment and it required the federal government to oversee voter registration and election changes in areas that had historically suppressed minority voting or where registration or turnout had been less than 50 percent in the 1964 Presidential election.
The effects were dramatic. By 1968, nearly 60 percent of African Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi and other Southern states showed similar improvement. It also gave a boost over the years to the election of African Americans to elective office at the local, state and national levels. Between 1965 and 1990, the number of African-American legislators and members of Congress rose from two to 160.
Unfortunately, efforts to disenfranchise voters still persist and Maryland has not been immune from such attempts. In 2002, flyers were handed out in Baltimore City with the wrong Election Day, also warning voters to pay their parking tickets before voting. Similar problems were reported in Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
During the 2006 election, flyers were distributed in predominately African-American neighborhoods falsely claiming that the candidates had been endorsed by their opponent’s party and by prominent figures who had actually endorsed another candidate.
We must remain constantly vigilant to efforts to deny or infringe upon the rights of all Americans to vote. In 2006, as a House member, I voted for the reauthorization of the VRA to strengthen these protections.
As we pause to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we must take a moment to appreciate what we have accomplished. Voting is a fundamental right and the laws of our nation provide protections that make it possible for every American to exercise that right.