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I’ve never voted in any election. I majored in political science, worked on state and federal policy initiatives, volunteered for numerous local and presidential candidates, but I can’t vote. I’m an India citizen and a permanent resident of the United States. I can’t vote in India because I don’t have residency there and I can’t vote in the U.S. because I’m not a citizen here. As engaged as I am in politics, policy and civics, my literal inability to vote often makes me feel like I am a little left out—not completely part of the social fabric. I can’t wait for the day I become a U.S. citizen (fingers crossed) in large part because I want to vote in the next presidential election and truly feel like I belong. I yearn for the confidence that voting brings and I have deep respect for those who sacrificed much to ensure the universality of that basic right in the U.S.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important moments in United States civil rights history. During three weeks in March of 1965, people marched from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capital, three separate times to demand equal voting rights for black Americans. Their movement was a success, with President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing plans to introduce the Voting Rights Act to Congress.
Recalling those events and the demands the marchers made has become particularly important since the 2013 Supreme Court decision which struck down the most important provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – the provision requiring federal approval for all changes to the electoral system in states which historically discriminated against blacks. The Voting Rights Act was meant to ensure fair representation for black Americans by preventing gerrymandering of districts which would divide the population of black voters into smaller chunks, effectively burying their voices and their votes and ensuring their continued political underrepresentation.
The impact of the Voting Rights Act came into sharp relief following the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013. Several states immediately moved to alter their election laws when the decision was handed down, enforcing new, strict requirements that voters present photo IDs in order to vote. While the argument that a photo ID requirement would reduce voter fraud seems reasonable on the surface, the truth is that voter fraud is extremely rare, and the difficulties many poor and disabled persons face getting a photo ID that would qualify them to vote are many. For many of us, getting an ID may seem as simple as going to the nearest department of motor vehicles office (despite the stereotypically long lines and wait times) or filling out a form online—but for low income individuals, those living in homeless shelters, or senior citizens with limited mobility—even such a seemingly simple task does not come without difficulty.
In effect, the voter ID laws can disenfranchise minorities, the poor, and the disabled and pose a serious threat to democratic governance and rule of law in the United States. It is a situation which flies in the face of everything the marchers in Selma fought for in 1965.
The era of literacy tests and poll taxes is in the past, and there it should stay. No law that results in citizens’ inability to participate in the activity that makes the United States a democracy—voting in elections—should be enacted. The Voting Rights Act was an effective and essential law that increased participation in the democracy—because of a real history of denying citizens the right to vote.
The right to vote is nothing without the actual ability to vote. Civil rights activists in the 60s fought hard to counter centuries of oppression and slavery by ensuring that those who were previously left out had the ability to get back in. It is imperative that we continue their struggle, not upend it because some have manufactured a narrative that prejudice does not exist in America any more. A strong Voting Rights Act corrects the mistakes of the past and ensures that everybody gets to participate in our democracy.