Opinion: The fight against voting rights continues

The historic victories of the 2020 election cycle, including record voter turnout and the election of candidates like Vice President Harris, Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff, do not mean the right to vote is safe. In fact, with voter suppression on the rise nationally and the passage of the perilous HB531 and SB241 in the Georgia legislature this month, it is still at stake.

It has been 56 years since the Voting Rights Act passed. Still, the forces seeking to restrict Black and Brown communities from voting will not stop their long and exhaustive battle against the right to vote in Georgia – a struggle that was on full display this past election cycle and that bills like these continue to spotlight.

Last year, we saw hours-long lines at voting booths in Black communities, early voting locations across the state were shuttered and disinformation campaigns sowed confusion and doubt on our democratic process. Some elected officials spewed the false and unmerited claims of the former President of the United States. That sad display is extending to state legislatures now, including here in Georgia where some are doubling down with anti-voting legislation following their party’s losses.

The Voting Rights Act, which passed in 1965, was intended to end suppression of the Black vote by outlawing voter suppression techniques like literacy tests. In the years since, the dismantling of Section 4 of this landmark legislation led to states, particularly those with a history of suppression, no longer being required to clear their voting laws with the Department of Justice. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder struck a terrible blow in the struggle for voting rights and eliminated the federal formula that protected voters against discrimination – to say nothing of pending Supreme Court decisions. Without these guardrails in place, state legislatures across the country can pass measures to make voting more difficult.

Rather than work for your vote, some Georgia state lawmakers are seeking to make participating in democracy even more difficult, including by diminishing the usage of ballot drop boxes, increasing photo ID requirements, limiting Sunday voting, reducing early voting periods and ending no-excuse absentee voting.

This web of restrictions is designed to silence the voices of people in Georgia – especially Black, Brown and young voters – who sent history-makers to the Senate and the White House. But this pattern of historic gains followed by broad voter suppression is not new, and the lack of bipartisan support for federal legislation like H.R.1, which will broaden voting access, is another example that shows many of our nation’s leaders are not in support of refining and expanding our democratic process.

For decades, it has been third party organizers who have stepped in to fill holes in state voter engagement efforts. In fact, much of the late Congressman John Lewis’ work as a young man in the 1960s centered on this mission. Election officials who fail to fulfill their duties – based on benign neglect, explicit hostility toward people voting, or a lack of resources – exacerbate this gap.

We need renewed dedication to voting rights to carry Congressman Lewis’s legacy and vision farther, to stand up for the voters in the 5th District as well as across the state. It will take continued leadership by civic engagement groups to help people in all states understand how to safely exercise their right to vote and to push back against efforts in state legislatures preventing people from registering and turning out to vote. H.R.1 – designed to empower individuals to shape our democracy – will work to undo the damage done to our nation.

If it is signed into law following its passage in the U.S. House this month, this bill will be a monumental step forward. And it is strengthened by amendments to make registering to vote easier in tangible ways.

Residents frequently need to update their voter registration when they move to a new home. But this is often a confusing process. One amendment of H.R. 1 would require federal government agencies to design a uniform statement that would be provided to many renters and mortgage applicants informing them of how they can register to vote and of their voting rights under law. From individuals who just need a reminder to register to vote, to those who need detailed help in doing so, this amendment is designed to help.

Elections should be a contest of ideas and should not be won or lost based on which Americans are prevented from voting. Despite progress in voter turnout and registration in 2020 in Georgia and across the country, Americans and the media must be vigilant in the fight against efforts to make voting more difficult or impossible for some. Let us unite to register and bring more people into the democratic process, and choose winners in every state based on ideas, just as Georgia voters did.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, represents Georgia’s Fifth District. Marissa McBride is Board Chair of the Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information.