Comment: Honor King by passing voting rights legislation

Two bills in the U.S. Senate that would secure access to the vote would honor Martin Luther King Jr.

By Jeanne Crevier / For The Herald

Voting rights for all has been the central concern of the League of Women Voters since its founding in 1920.

The League supports passage by the U.S. Senate of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which have already passed in the House of Representatives. We applaud the statement of the King family that Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be marked by passage of these bills as the best possible way to honor the Rev. Dr. King’s memory and advance democracy in the United States. Both pieces of legislation are essential to ensuring that all eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote in the United States.

Since its beginning in 1776, our country has experienced a gradual expansion of voting rights, initially only for white males with property to the current constitutionally protected right of all citizens over the age of 18. As each new group gained rights there were efforts to block the actual exercise of those rights, especially in the South, where numerous restrictive laws were enacted starting in the 1890s.

The last successful expansion of rights occurred with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Martin Luther King Jr., fought for. This act prohibited racial discrimination in voting laws and practices, and it required that changes to laws in states that historically discriminated be submitted to Congress for review at the federal level. In 2013 the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, ruled that this requirement was unconstitutional, thus striking a blow to voting rights.

Taking advantage of this decision, some states began to restrict access to the vote, and in 2021 a total of 34 laws restricting voting rights were passed by legislatures in 19 states, while an additional 440 bills were introduced in the legislative bodies of 49 of our 50 states.

Even in our own Washington state, with all mail-in voting since 2012, some state legislators introduced efforts to restrict the vote in February 2021; fortunately, their bills were unsuccessful and in fact our legislature acted to restore the franchise to formerly incarcerated persons immediately upon release. Washington state laws are already closely aligned with the provisions of the Freedom to Vote Act.

The Freedom to Vote Act would set minimum standards for voting access, including early voting for at least two weeks prior to an election and easy accessibility to polling stations by public transportation. Any voter would be able to request a mail-in ballot, with no excuse required. Election Day would be established as a national holiday, citizens with disabilities would be protected, formerly incarcerated persons would regain their rights upon release, and it would protect people from voter intimidation via false or misleading information. It would also establish measures to guard against voter fraud and ensure accurate reporting of election results.

In other provisions, the Freedom to Vote Act would modernize voting and voter registration methods, requiring same-day registration and online registration, while safeguarding eligible voters from unlawful elimination from the rolls.

The Freedom to Vote Act includes reforms to campaign financing, requiring increased transparency and enforcing of rules while ensuring that political action committees are truly independent. Partisan gerrymandering would be banned, with procedures set to ensure the protection of minority communities and to prevent any political party from “choosing its voters” rather than being chosen by the voters.

A companion but separate act, The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, is meant to deal directly with recent voter suppression techniques, by restoring and modernizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It specifically prohibits practices that prevent minority voters from exercising the franchise, such as limiting the number of polling places in low-income or minority districts or placing them in locations that cannot be reached by public transportation, or requiring onerous procedures for registering to vote or for submitting ballots.

Failure by the Senate to pass these two laws would constitute a giant step backward in democracy in the United States, as it would allow all the voter discrimination and voter suppression laws being promoted to stand. We all need to alert our fellow citizens to the dangers and we need to insist that our senators and President Biden do whatever is necessary to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to honor the Rev. Dr. King, and all civil rights activists?

Jeanne Crevier is president of the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County.

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