Our Defense of Democracy Continues

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On Aug. 6, principled Americans of every background commemorated the 52nd 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, President Johnson joined a bipartisan congressional majority in affirming every American’s right to vote as the foundation of our democracy.

Five decades later, most Americans still believe that voting is a fundamental American right that must never be conditioned nor denied.  Yet, as I have written in the past, even today, there are those who actively conspire to diminish our democratic strength in the voting booths of our nation.

As Dr. King observed in his prophetic 1957 challenge to the voter suppression regimes of that time, “Give us the Ballot:” “All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent the Negroes from becoming registered voters.”

Elijah Cummings

Six decades later, these calculated, anti-democratic exclusionary tactics have been modified somewhat.

Under the unproven – and, in fact, disproved – assertions of widespread “voter fraud,” voter suppression now targets other minorities, the aged, young and poor – as well as those of us who are Black.

The methods of that attack include onerous voter-identification requirements, constitutionally-suspect voter-roll “purges” and partisan disinformation campaigns.

This is why it is not enough for us to stand and declare the truth, as Dr. King observed, that “the denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”

As we have witnessed in the years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the protection of our right and power to vote for those who will govern us now demands that every patriotic American resist, stand together, organize and fight to preserve our most fundamental constitutional right.

Fortunately, the Voting Rights Act, although weakened and more burdensome for aggrieved voters to implement, is not yet dead.

Last year, 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;” and other federal and state courts have prohibited or limited voter suppression legislation in Kansas, Wisconsin, Texas and Ohio.

The struggle in Congress is just as intense.

It has now been more than two and one-half years since I joined Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, Jr., and Democratic Congressman John Conyers, Jr., in proposing legislative corrections to Shelby County v. Holder in the Voting Rights Amendments Act of 2015 – and nearly 26 months since we advanced further reforms in the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015.

In the current Congress, we have reintroduced these proposed reforms to strengthen our voting laws (H.R. 3239 and 2978) because we know that ours is a struggle that our nation cannot afford to lose.

Tragically, and contrary to their solemn duty as elected representatives of the American people, Republican leaders in both the Senate and House have refused to give either of these corrective reforms an up-or-down vote.

Now, in part as the result of conscious voter suppression of the popular will in 2016, the opposition to effective, universal suffrage now has extended from Republican-dominated State Legislatures to the United States Department of Justice – and even to the White House.

To the faint hearted, in fact, it may seem as if the cause of democracy and civil rights in America is lost; and I do not minimize the dangers that these voter suppression efforts pose to our rights.

Yet I, along with a majority of all Americans, strongly disagree that the cause of democracy in America is lost.

I disagree because history has taught me that the ultimate authority in our nation will never permanently reside in any White House, any State House, any Congress, or any court.  Rather, that authority continues to live in each and all of us, acting together.

For that ultimate authority to empower us and improve our lives, however, it must be exercised.

“All power to the people” is not just a battle cry from the 1960s.  It must be the operational goal of our democratic movement in 2017.

This is why each of us must continue to be actively engaged.

We must register and vote ourselves, and when our neighbors are required to produce identification at their polling places, we must work together to help them get those IDs.

When cynical and partisan election boards make voting more difficult on Election Day, we must bring a box lunch and wait our turn.

When the evidence shows racially-based attacks on our voting power, we must fight that suppression in the Congress, our State Legislatures and our courts.

We are in a fight for the soul of our democracy.

Yet, I remain convinced that, working together, our defense of democracy is a struggle that we can win.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.