The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most important victory of the civil rights movement and one of the greatest achievements of American democracy.

The law took power away from state and local governments that were denying American citizens the right to vote based on the color of their skin.

The results were immediate and profound. Millions of people who had faced discriminatory practices like poll taxes, literacy tests and proof of “good character” requirements were able to register and vote. The Voting Rights Act did not eliminate racism, but it made it harder for racists to exclude Black men and women from the voting booth and public office. The law didn’t perfect American democracy, but it made it better, not just for Black people but for everyone.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called voting “Civil Right No. 1,” the right from which all other rights flow. On this weekend, when we are supposed to be celebrating his life and work, it’s a bitter truth that we are witnessing a giant step backward in the march toward justice.

Unanimous Republican opposition in Congress and the small-minded commitment to the filibuster rule by just two Democratic senators have done what Southern segregationists couldn’t do in the 1960s. They are blocking efforts to use the power of the federal government to protect citizens’ constitutional rights.

We hope Maine Sen. Susan Collins and some of her Republican colleagues will reflect on Dr. King’s message this weekend and recognize what history demands of us all. Either we are moving forward as a multiracial democracy, or we are retreating into the worst of our past. The famously moderate senator should see that on this issue there is no middle ground.

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The original Voting Rights Act passed with a bipartisan vote, and it has been reauthorized multiple times since with little controversy. In 2006, the reauthorization passed 98-0 in the Senate, with the votes of 16 Republicans who are still serving, including Collins.

But support for it began to unravel in 2013, when five Republican Supreme Court justices pulled out one of its key pillars.

Under the law, states and counties that had a history of racial discrimination had to clear any changes to voting regulations with the Department of Justice before they could go into effect. Writing for the majority in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that present conditions did not justify federal scrutiny for those jurisdictions. He found that America’s history of racial discrimination was firmly in the past, as evidenced by the rates of Black participation in recent elections.

States that would have been required to clear voting law changes with the federal government responded to Shelby v. Holder by implementing changes that would not have been approved. They purged the registrations of infrequent voters, closed polling places in minority precincts and passed overly strict voter ID laws that disproportionately affect people of color. Last year, the Supreme Court’s Republican justices took another bite out of the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement capacity by making it more difficult for voters to get relief from the courts after they have been discriminated against.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would create a new formula for stopping these practices before they go into effect, one that is crafted to overcome the court’s objection. States and counties that have been found to have discriminated would again be required to secure clearance for new changes, but they could get off the list if they have had a clear record for a number of years.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act is important, but it is not enough. Just since the 2020 election, 19 states have passed laws that make it harder to vote  in ways that disproportionately affect minority and young voters. Advanced computer modeling has enabled partisans to draw the lines of congressional districts to minimize the influence of Black, Latino, Asian and other minority groups, and states are increasingly putting vote counting into the hands of political actors.

The Freedom to Vote Act brings voting rights into the modern world, setting  minimum standards for every state’s elections with the goal of giving all  eligible voters an equal opportunity to vote. The standards include rules for early voting and mail-in voting, registration policies, rules for voter ID and nonpartisan commissions to draw legislative and congressional district maps.

If we believe in democracy, then there is only one choice to make when it comes to voting rights. We urge Sen. Collins to break with her party and return to the right side of history.


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