This month we’ve honored the anniversaries of events that we hoped would change America forever.
On March 21, 1965, hundreds of men and women began a peaceful march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to stand up for one of the most cherished and fundamental rights in our democracy — the right to vote. But on Sunday, March 7 — two weeks before this successful march — the demonstrators were stopped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. There, state troopers and local police met peace with violence. They unleashed nightsticks and tear gas, and they charged the protesters from horseback.
These events did set our nation on a new course, but the problem of discrimination in voting has not yet been eradicated. The days of violent intimidation to prevent African Americans and Latinos from exercising the franchise may be behind us, but the right to vote is still far too often a promise rather than a guarantee, and racial discrimination in voting continues to plague our democracy, in old forms and new.
To protect the gains of the past 50 years, we need to ensure that our laws continue to protect against discrimination in 21st-century America.
When Congress first passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, racial discrimination in voting was pervasive, blatant and geographically concentrated. Towns and counties in many states would disenfranchise African-American and Latino voters by imposing literacy tests, demanding that citizens subject themselves to demeaning exercises — such as calculating the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they would be permitted to vote — or through outright violence and intimidation.
The Voting Rights Act addressed these challenges by providing a series of remedies against discrimination, including a process known as “preclearance,” which required towns, counties and states with a history of discrimination to undergo a specific federal review before implementing electoral changes. For almost 50 years, this process prevented new voting laws from being implemented until a determination had been made that the new laws would not be racially discriminatory.
Then, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the formula that determined which states and localities would be subject to the “preclearance” provision. As a result of this decision, we have not only lost a critical tool that prevented discrimination, but we have also lost one of the few sources of information about when and where towns and counties are considering potentially harmful election changes.
Around the country, measures such as racially discriminatory redistricting plans, changes in the way local elections are administered and last-minute changes to election dates are still used to disenfranchise some voters. These techniques, while often subtle, are just as troubling as the old literacy tests when they are directed toward the same goal: making it harder for minorities to have an equal voice in our democracy.
A bipartisan group of legislators recently introduced a bill that could help to address this challenge. The Voting Rights Amendment Act would provide a new “preclearance” mechanism that would have nationwide application in states, counties and towns that have a record of discrimination in the recent past.
This approach would allow us to target the places where discrimination is happening, anywhere in the country. This bill would also provide enhanced transparency by requiring full disclosure of any proposed changes to election procedures.
Like many others, I believe that this bill can and should be strengthened in a number of ways. Yet it is critical that we all come together to recognize that there are voters across the country left vulnerable to discrimination each day that we do not take action to update the safeguards needed to protect their right to vote.
The right to vote is fundamental and absolute, but our progress to achieve that right for all will take time. I urge Congress to take the next step and advance this critical legislation. As my slave-born grandfather would say: “Forward in the struggle!”
Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP, is a School of Public Affairs scholar at American University in Washington and a University of Virginia professor emeritus. He wrote this for The Root, an online source of commentary from a variety of black perspectives.