Fifty-three years ago today, a century of struggle, risk, and strategy by African Americans and other civil rights activists culminated in the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of our nation’s most effective and fundamental civil rights laws. For centuries, elites intent on maintaining power in the hands of a few denied, often violently, African Americans the right to vote. The signing of the VRA on August 6, 1965 was a bold step in the direction of perfecting our union, buttressing the constitutional right to vote with the tools to actually secure that right—and the ability to build political power—for all Americans.
The VRA worked. In the first few months after passage, 240,000 African Americans were registered across the South, more than were registered over the decades before 1965. In Mississippi alone, the voter registration rate among black voters grew from 6.7 percent before the Act’s passage to 59.8 percent in 1967, just 2 years later. And these registrations translated to real electoral power, especially in the South. Across the Southern states covered by Section 5 of the VRA—the provision requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices to obtain permission before enacting voting changes—the number of black elected officials grew from 72 in 1965 to close to 1,000 10 years later.
Despite the VRA’s remarkable success, it was gutted 5 years ago by a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The devastating Shelby v. Holder decision found that one of the VRA’s principal enforcement mechanisms was no longer necessary. The effects of this decision have been as widespread as they are chilling: State after state has passed restrictive voting laws that disproportionately disenfranchise communities of color, trans folks, low-income people, people with disabilities, and youth and the elderly.
As powerful elites again block underrepresented communities from making their voices heard, we must secure our right to vote at the federal, state, and local levels. Fortunately, we have several policy solutions to keep us moving toward a stronger, more inclusive democracy. Because the VRA draws much of its power and efficacy from its status as federal law, the only comprehensive solution to close the gaps the Shelby decision created is federal legislation restoring—and expanding—the VRA. The proposed Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA) is such a solution.
While advocates work for solutions at the federal level, states across the country are already taking steps toward ensuring full and fair access to our democracy. Last month, Demos released Everyone’s America, our policy book full of bold, progressive state-level policies aimed at ensuring we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy—including solutions that advocates and policymakers can pursue right now to advance and expand the freedom to vote.
States can modernize voting and election systems. Online Voter Registration systems allow people to register to vote and to check and update their registration in a convenient, cost-effective way. Automatic Voter Registration radically increases the registered electorate, while making voter roll maintenance easier and more accurate. Same Day and Election Day Registration, which permit voters to register and cast their ballots on the same day, simplify the registration process and allow for fixing of registration issues in real time.
States can also make the act of voting more accessible for everyone. Robust early voting, with extended hours and expanded locations, alongside vote-by-mail and in-person absentee voting policies, greatly facilitate voting among working-class communities and others who have a hard time making it to the polls on Election Day. States can also establish curbside and mobile voting locations and ensure poll workers are adequately trained to support all voters, and especially voters who face higher hurdles to civic participation. This includes going above and beyond the existing federal civil rights protections for voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency to ensure that more voters can cast free and independent ballots.
States can also give more residents a say in decisions affecting their lives by abolishing laws that disenfranchise people convicted of felonies and restoring the vote to all who have lost their rights under such laws, and by granting non-citizens the right to vote in state or municipal elections. And states can establish independent redistricting commissions to draw political boundaries and move us toward a democracy in which voters pick their elected officials instead of the other way around.
As we celebrate the 53rd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act—and maintain vigilance about contemporary disenfranchisement schemes—we must not forget one important truth: The vast majority of Americans want elections that are free, fair, and accessible to all, and they support the policy solutions that would make this ideal a reality. States and localities can take clear, actionable steps today to lead us toward a more balanced, inclusive democracy.