This August marked the anniversary of two major milestones in the journey for American voting rights.
The 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, turned 95. And the landmark federal Voting Rights Act turned 50. Both were passed thanks to the immeasurable sacrifice of so many brave women and men who endured brutal violence and oppression. These heroes were often ordinary citizens whose extraordinary courage was driven by an unshakable faith that their efforts would make our nation a better place for the generations that followed.
But as we celebrate how far we’ve progressed as a country, today we are faced with glaring examples of how we must continue to be vigilant in protecting these hard-won victories.
Even as the Voting Rights Act reaches its mid-century mark, North Carolina finds itself at the center of a pivotal court case focused on equal access to the polls. Last month, I joined dozens of witnesses who testified at a federal courthouse in Winston-Salem about how the legislature’s repeal of same-day registration and cuts to early voting are hurting all North Carolinians, and especially minorities, young voters and senior citizens.
While the nation watches how this key trial plays out in our state, the Voting Rights Act itself has been undermined by a controversial 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted vital protections in North Carolina and elsewhere, jeopardizing the advances we have made.
Today’s tenuous state of the Voting Rights Act is especially striking in contrast to the strong support for this law in the decades since its adoption.
The act was passed with bipartisan agreement in 1965 and signed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. It was renewed in later years with overwhelming support in Congress, along with the approval of Republican presidents.
“This legislation proves our unbending commitment to voting rights,” President Ronald Reagan said upon signing an extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. “It also proves that differences can be settled in a spirit of good will and good faith.”
Twenty-four years later, President George W. Bush echoed that sentiment when he signed another extension, saying, “In four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending.”
And just this month, President Barack Obama cited North Carolina’s own voting law trial when calling on lawmakers to protect this most fundamental American right.
“Congress must restore the Voting Rights Act. Our state leaders and legislatures must make it easier — not harder — for more Americans to have their voices heard,” President Obama wrote in a letter to the New York Times. “Above all, we must exercise our right as citizens to vote, for the truth is that too often we disenfranchise ourselves.”
For Congress to act, we must act first. It is our duty as American citizens to carry on the legacy of those heroes who came before us. We must stand together – Republicans, Democrats and independents alike – and demand that our government protect equal access to the polls.
As part of the effort to restore the Voting Rights Act, the national NAACP has organized “America’s Journey for Justice,” an 860-mile trek from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. The march will come through North Carolina beginning Aug. 29, and will include a voting rights rally at the State Capitol in Raleigh on Sept. 3. More information on that rally can be found at www.CommonCauseNC.org/justice.
Speaking up for voting rights is not a partisan issue – it’s the bedrock of our democracy, as shown by citizens from across the political spectrum that have worked together to achieve the historic victories we remember this month.
Indeed, August’s commemorations of past voting rights milestones shed light on the struggles that still remain and can provide a roadmap for the journey ahead.
Bob Phillips is the Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in the political process.