On August 6, principled Americans of every background commemorated the 51st anniversary of that historic day in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. With a few strokes of his ceremonial pen, the President joined a bipartisan congressional majority in affirming every American’s right to vote as the foundation of our democracy.
Five decades later, the principle that voting is a fundamental American right that must never be conditioned nor denied is a bedrock value of our society. Yet, even today, there are those who act as if our presence in the voting booths of our nation is a privilege — and not our constitutional right.
Tragically, there are those who are doing all that they can to prevent even registered American voters from casting their ballots.
As we have seen in the years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, we must remain vigilant and fight to protect the right to vote from the Republican governors and state legislatures that are actively seeking to silence entire communities, including our own.
We are under attack. Yet, it is not enough for us to stand and declare the truth, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, that “the denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”
We must act, challenging the evil of voter suppression wherever and whenever it raises its ugly head. We must marshal the forces of our democracy on every front of this struggle — in our legislatures, in our courts, and in our communities.
For the first time in a critical election year since 1965, a year in which the Presidency, Congress and Supreme Court are all at stake, we will be without the full protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act.
It has now been more than a year and a half since we proposed legislative corrections to Shelby County v. Holder in the Voting Rights Amendments Act of 2015, nearly 14 months since we advanced further reforms in the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015.
The constitutional voting rights of millions of Americans hang in the balance. Yet, the Republican majorities in both the Senate and House continue to refuse to give these corrective measures an up-or-down vote.
In the Shelby County case, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson has observed, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, John Roberts, justified weakening the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” requirement for jurisdictions with a past history of racial discrimination on the theory that we now live in a “post-racial” society.
Yet, contrary to the Chief Justice’s theory, dozens of Republican-dominated state legislatures enacted laws in the wake of Shelby that make it more difficult for minorities, young people the elderly, and impoverished to vote.
Fortunately, the Voting Rights Act, although weakened and more burdensome for aggrieved voters to implement, is not yet dead.
On July 29, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down North Carolina’s voter restriction laws, writing that “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Other federal and state courts have prohibited or limited voter suppression legislation in Kansas, Wisconsin, Texas and Ohio.
Nevertheless, as the Brennan Center for Justice has pointed out, 15 states will have voting restrictions in place this year for the first time in a presidential election — and in a number of those states, the presidential candidates are currently very close in the public opinion polls.
The outcome in November’s elections, and the future of our nation, may well depend upon not only upon which Americans choose to vote, but also upon whether they are permitted to vote and have their votes counted.
I emphasize again that the Presidency, Congress and the makeup of the Supreme Court are all at stake on Nov. 8, decisions that will directly affect our families and the generations yet to be born.
Every American has a stake in the outcome, and every American should make his or her choices known.
While we can be hopeful that the courts will continue to uphold our most fundamental right as citizens by striking down state voter restriction legislation, we cannot rely solely upon the courts to uphold our rights.
Congress must act.
That is why I have called upon House Speaker Paul Ryan to put country before politics —to immediately act on legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act to ensure that all Americans have their rightful voice in our democracy.
Congress must vote so that every American can vote.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.