The death of Congressman John Lewis brings to mind the vital importance of the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which was passed by the house in December 2019 and sat before Mitchell McConnell and the Senate for more than 200 days.
This law is “to restore protections of voting rights by setting new criteria for determining which states and political divisions must obtain preclearance before changes to voting practices in these areas may take effect.” McConnell’s refusal to bring this bill forward is part of multiple efforts to suppress voter participation in the upcoming election. When combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the threats to the economy posed by the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic, we face real threats to our democracy.
Thousands have found their names removed from the voter rolls for missing an election. Others were denied voting rights for a felony crime for which they served time and have returned to society. Still others had the same name as someone convicted of crime. All Sam Smiths had their names removed from the rolls because a Sam Smith was in jail. Some were simply told they had not registered. Voting centers have been closed. Early voting options have been eliminated. Voting by mail has been challenged. And the list of efforts to eliminate voting rights goes on.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 would eliminate at least some efforts to rob us of voting rights.
But we have a long history of fighting for voting rights. In the early 19th century working men demanded the removal of the property requirements which the founders of our country had set. Those men thought voting rights should be limited to adult, white men, 21 years of age or older who owned property. Slowly, summer after summer, working men who could never afford to buy land, succeeded in removing the property requirement and gained voting rights.
Free Black men were also in the choir demanding voices in the democracy. Free black men in Baltimore, including William Watkins, James Deaver, James McCune Smith, Charles Hackett and others, worked around the slave codes to purchase property, open their own businesses, and even testify in court. They also called for voting rights. While they did not succeed in the 1830s, ’40s and ’50s, the language of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, passed July 9, 1868, which defined citizenship for those born in the United States (excluding Native Americans) is strikingly similar to the language these early 19th century free Black men used in seeking the franchise and an end to slavery. Likewise, the 15th Amendment, which was to have granted African American men the franchise, was modeled on language they used in demands for voting rights
The Jim Crow laws in the south robbed these citizens of the franchise, but their battles continued. In the summer of 1962, the 24th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the revocation of voting rights for the failure to pay a poll tax. Then in August of 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed providing voting rights to African American citizens, including women who should have been included under the 19th Amendment.
White women also demanded voting rights. As early as 1838, Sarah Grimke wrote about the rights women should have. Using the story of creation as recorded in the first book of Genesis, she argued that women and men were created equal in the eyes of God. While the battle for female suffrage did not take off for another two decades, it would eventually be won 70 years later, in the summer (August) 1920.
Voting rights for Native Americans was also a long struggle. Not until June of 1924 did the Snyder Law establish that our indigenous people were citizens. However voting rights are established by states and it took decades the franchise to be established, state by state. The Supreme Court decision, McGirt v. Oklahoma, July 9, 2020, which ruled tribes in Oklahoma had rights to land granted them in 1832, represents another important summer action protecting rights.
Some of us take voting rights for granted, but we need to pressure the Senate to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019! Then be sure to register to vote. Get your friends, neighbors, and others are registered. Support the “Vote by Mail” an option for all citizens. And vote in November. Our democracy is at stake.