In the summer of 1965, I was listening to the Rolling Stones’ single "Time is on My Side," working on a farm, and thinking about girls, baseball and getting my driver’s license that fall. My mind was elsewhere when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act 55 years ago last week.
The VRA prohibited Southern states from preventing Blacks from voting. It outlawed discrimination against any racial or language minority, identified states with a history of bias, and required U.S. Justice Department approval of election-law changes.
Now – this month – the nation must get ready for November’s election, when the pandemic could wreck it or cause ballooning voting-by-mail.
"I think we have two weeks to make the critical decisions that are necessary to pull off this election," said Stanford Law School elections expert Nathaniel Persily, who estimates that adequate preparations will need more than $3 billion.
That’s troubling when Congress hasn’t renewed aid to people affected by the collapsing economy, and GOP extremists are increasing voter suppression schemes – actions that imply making it easier for Republicans, Democrats, Greens and Libertarians to participate in our republic is unfair.
The country’s still dealing with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in "Shelby v. Holder," which weakened the VRA. Chief Justice John Roberts said the law was "out of date" though bipartisan support in Congress had recently renewed it. That decision’s been followed by more moves making it harder to vote, barriers keeping "significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters," reported the Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ).
Such barriers include re-districting letting lawmakers pick voters instead of voters electing lawmakers, purging voters, blocking vote by mail, requiring restrictive IDs, moving/closing polling places, and reviving intimidation efforts (like the GOP marshalling 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to challenge ballots).
"In 2016, no fewer than 5,872,857 ballots were cast and never counted," documents Greg Palast in the new book "How Trump Stole 2020" (highly recommended, along with Carol Anderson’s "One Person, No Vote"). "And, no fewer than 1,982,071 legal voters were denied the right to vote. That's at least 7,854,928 legitimate votes and voters tossed out of the count."
Required IDs now range from special state identifications to passports and driver’s licenses – all of which affect seniors, students, low-income citizens and urban residents: folks who don’t travel outside the country or use public transportation instead of driving.
Suppression also includes undermining the Postal Service, which would handle mailed-in ballots, 33 millionof which were cast in the 2016 election. It has some GOP support; Republican officials in Iowa and Ohio have made mail-in voting easier, and despite months of exaggerations and lies about voter fraud, 58% of Americans favor permitting vote-by-mail, according to a poll last week by Politico/Morning Consult.
Quelling the vote isn’t new, of course. There have been literacy tests, poll taxes, etc., but it’s worse today.
"Nineteen states have passed new measures to suppress votes since 2017," said Bob Moser, author of "Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority."
"And with so much at stake in 2020 – not just the presidency and Congress, but state legislatures that get to draw new district lines for a new decade after the U.S. census – they’re not done yet."
Some 150 advocacy groups are fighting back. Led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, they range from the NAACP and Common Cause to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Public Citizen. And U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois is discussing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing Americans’ right to vote.
Illinois is relatively voter friendly after January’s signing of a measure making Election Day a state holiday, providing mail-in voting, expanding early-voting, and giving students who are registered voters two hours to vote.
But voting’s never been a gift. It’s a right that we all must fight for, as countless others have fought for and been hurt by and sometimes killed for.
In the short term, Americans should register to vote (or update their information) and plan to cast ballots and get out the vote in their communities. Eventually, Congress should make Election Day a national holiday, extend early voting, have efficient and widespread vote by mail, and restore the Voting Rights Act.
The late, great Congressman and civil-right activist John Lewis (D-Ga.) in January said voting is "the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society."
Time is no longer on our side. NOW is the time.
Are you registered? To determine your voter-registration status, check with your state’s Secretary of State office or go online to groups such as vote.org or headcount.org.
Bill Knight has been a reporter, editor and columnist for more than 50 years. Also an author, Knight is a journalism professor emeritus from WIU, where he taught for more than 20 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; for archives, go to https://mayflyproductions.blogspot.com/.