August 17, 2015

On 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act, a call for urgent action

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
voting rights
Caption: Vice President Paul Pecorale oversees NYSUT's social justice initiatives. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

This summer's 50th anniversary of the passage of the hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965 is providing opportunities for urgent action, rather than celebration, to restore the honor of the original act.

By virtue of a resolution from its membership, NYSUT is fighting for passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 (H.R. 885) to flip the attacks on voter rights from state decisions limiting hours, access and identification. NYSUT is supporting the proposed act in conjunction with national affiliates AFT, NEA and the AFL-CIO "in order to restore and expand those long-standing, immensely important provisions of the Voting Rights Act," said Karen E. Magee, NYSUT president.

The anniversary offers up no time like the present to hone history in order to understand how and why the very same rights are under new threats and harms.

"Many states have passed voter identification laws that restrict registration and voting procedures, including the elimination of online voting registration, early voting, 'Souls to the Polls' Sunday voting, same-day registration and pre-registration for teens about to turn 18," Magee said. "These action are being taken for the express purpose of suppressing the voice of Americans based on their race or because they speak a language other than English."

Organizations across the country are raising alarms about the threats to voter rights:

  • A petition to support the Amendment Act of 2015 can be found at the American Civil Liberties Union site.
  • Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center has put together lesson plans on the original Voting Rights Act, using activities that can help students evaluate the impact of the act and explain new threats to voting rights. It includes links to a 14-minute video from the NBC Learn archives.
  • The Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State reports that in states where voting rights are under the most sustained attacks, people of faith are leading the way in building coalitions, challenging reactionary politicians and working to make sure progress of the past is not wiped away. The Moral Mondays movement, for example, began in North Carolina, and it has allowed both faith and community leaders to organize and march against stringent voting restrictions.
  • The Andrew Goodman Foundation's Vote Everywhere, a college-based student leadership and civic engagement program, met this summer to plan how to bring down obstructions to voting and build nonpartisan political organizing. Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were civil rights activist who were murdered by the Klu Klux Klan during their work with the Freedom Summer project helping black citizens register to vote; their murders were considered a turning point toward getting the original act passed. The three men were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

"There's never been a more important time for our young people to look forward to exercising their right to vote and have their voices heard. We must all encourage young people to make sure that they play their crucial role in our democracy," said Andrew Pallotta, NYSUT executive vice president.

NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees social justice for the union, pointed out that "Our good friend Rev. William Barber is fighting racially discriminatory voter ID laws and suppression laws in North Carolina in front of the federal courts this upcoming session. Many states including, Texas, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Ohio also have discriminatory laws in place. We must recognize there is a tremendous amount of work to do. We can't allow for any member of our society to be deprived of the right to vote in our country."

The 1965 act, in essence, ensured that African-Americans would not be denied the right to vote. In many southern states, especially, barriers ranging from intimidation to lynching prevented black residents from voting.

The ACLU reports that in 2008, this country had the most diverse electorate in U.S. History; from 2011 to 2012, there were 27 measures that were passed or implemented in 19 states to make it harder to vote; and in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down what has been called the "heart" of the Voting Rights Act, making it so that states no longer have to submit voting changes to the federal government for approval. Within hours of that passage, states began limiting voting rights.

The proposed 2015 amendment act would include a preclearance formula covering jurisdictions with recent, egregious voting records; notice and disclosure requirements for proposed voting changes; and additional ability of the Department of Justice to deploy federal observers in places where there is evidence of possible discrimination interfering with the ability to vote, according to the ACLU.