It’s 55 years to the day since Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, the first federal legislation designed to protect American voters from Jim Crow-era racism and voter suppression. It gave the US attorney general and US district court of Washington DC the power to strike down local and state laws that could discriminate against voters who might speak another language, or live in minority neighborhoods.
“Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote,” Johnson said in his landmark speech. “There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
But seven years ago, the law was rendered toothless by a supreme court case that gave states the right to pass laws without the justice department assessing them for discrimination.
The Voting Rights Act was passed just a few months after the late John Lewis marched with Martin Luther King and Selma’s foot soldiers across Alabama, fighting for the right to vote. But within just the last few years, since the supreme court decision, Black Americans like Lanisha Bratcher, Crystal Mason and Alfonso Tucker were prosecuted for voter fraud or barred from voting for small mistakes or for an unpaid $4 fine.
To mark the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, our Fight to Vote project is spotlighting American voter suppression through a day of original stories from across the country, in collaboration with newsrooms in the states hit hardest by voting rights issues. Texas Observer reporter Mike Barajas writes about the people in jail, many not even convicted of a crime, who are barred from voting. Wisconsin Watch’s Enjoyiana Nururdin profiles a blind voter who struggled to vote in a vital election. And Navajo Times reporter Cindy Yurth reports from Utah about a historic case to give Native people representation in their own community for the first time.
Also in partnership with us, WHYY’s Katie Meyer tells the story of a conservative group pushing Pennsylvania to purge more voters from its roles and WFAE’s Steve Harrison reports how the Shelby v Holder decision impacts North Carolina today.
On Thursday, the Guardian is also hosting a virtual event with Eric Holder, the former attorney general under Barack Obama, who is still working alongside other civil rights attorneys to protect voting access in the coming election.
In a year of civil unrest, a pandemic and an unprecedented election, commemorating the Voting Rights Act is bittersweet
In a year of deep civil unrest, a raging pandemic, and an unprecedented election, commemorating the Voting Rights Act is bittersweet. The determination of thousands of civil rights activists cleared the way for America to function as an actual democracy that represents all of its citizens. But we still face arbitrary poll closures, voter purges and unchecked restrictive laws. Republicans have long sought to make it more difficult to vote, sometimes outright claiming that making elections more accessible would only help the Democrats.
Meanwhile, our president is actively threatening free and fair elections, regularly undermining the vote-by-mail process that millions are relying on to vote safely during the pandemic, and calling on the Republican National Committee to pump more funding into litigating the rare instances of voter fraud during the election.
The Guardian has pledged to put the issue of voting rights at the heart of our 2020 coverage. We hope that a look at both the history and present circumstance of voting rights in America will spotlight the constitutional promise of democracy and the millions who have been fighting for decades to make that promise a reality. If you’d like to support this reporting, along with the rest of the Guardian’s journalism, please do so here.