Judith Browne Dianis is the executive director of Advancement Project’s national office and Jamal Watkins is national outreach director of the AFL-CIO.
It is shocking that in the 21st century, we are still fighting to ensure that all eligible citizens have the right to vote—nevertheless, the battle to protect one of our most sacred rights continues.
In 2016, we witnessed judges in states across the nation rule in favor of voting rights laws, striking down efforts to make it harder to vote. In Texas and North Carolina, significant court decisions found new laws restricting voting as racially discriminatory. In Virginia, the courts ordered voter registration to be reopened and extended due to a failure of the state's registration website. In Ohio, a judge ruled that the state must allow most of the voters illegally purged from the rolls to vote in 2016’s presidential election using provisional ballots; and in North Dakota, a court barred the state from implementing a strict voter identification law. Most of these laws would have significantly limited access to the ballot for voters of color.
Many would argue that the courts got it right—that the system of checks and balances works like it is supposed to. However, what is apparent, and even more troubling, is the same cycle of voter suppression legislation is happening all over again in 2017 in states like Iowa, Texas, Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire and New Jersey. This cycle is a deliberate effort to ensure that those with power and money retain both. It is propelled by fake claims of voter fraud.
It goes without saying that many of us are clear that protecting and advancing the right to vote is a marathon and not a sprint, but the race itself seems to have no real finish line. With every new tactic comes a time and cost intensive fight that drains precious resources from the core work of moving an agenda that works for working men, women, families and the communities they live in. With every legislative session, we find ourselves rehashing the same debate and litigating the same subject matter even though we know what is right—the courts, after all, have sided with us time and time again.
As we reflect on this year's Black History Month, renamed by the labor movement as Black Workers Month, we reflect on the rocky history of voting rights and voter suppression that has impacted the black community since the inception of our union. We reflect on the truth that we were not counted as equal in the first place and were later subjected to impossible tests just to have access to what is commonly referred to as a universal right. The same motives of power and greed were at the core of a long-standing racist agenda to keep black folks from having political power. Hundreds of years later we still face barriers cloaked in new forms although driven in a time where race and class are sometimes hidden by dog whistles.
The ultimate challenge is for us is to stay the course and work to advance a pro-voter agenda where the rules cannot be manipulated to favor one group over another. This requires us to proactively promote legislation that protects the right and expands access to the ballot box. For example, in Florida, 1.6 million people, who are disproportionately black, cannot vote because of felony convictions. These Americans should be given second chances and have their rights restored in Florida and other places. We should advocate for automatic voter registration, early voting and vote by mail. We also should fight for an explicit right to vote in federal law to ensure all voters have stringent protections against voter suppression. These and other commonsense policies should not continue to evade us and be trampled on because those in power don’t want their neighbors to vote. Policies that support an inclusive democracy should become the norm so that next Black Workers Month we will reflect on the progress we made through the ballot box and not have to dwell on our struggle to overcome barriers to it.