The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law on August 6, 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson because “Congress [had] determined that the existing federal anti-discrimination laws were not sufficient to overcome the resistance by state officials to enforcement of the 15th Amendment,” which had been ratified on February 3, 1870.
“Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans.”
The Act has been chipped away by the Supreme Court, resulting in a recent surge in voter ID laws, cuts to early voting and gerrymandering. One of the heroes of the Selma march of March 1965, John Lewis says voter ID laws are ‘poll taxes by another name’.
The 2014 midterm election turnout was the lowest in 70 years, when World War II was an understandable reason for failure to exercise the franchise. President Obama, who did NOT “suggest requiring everyone to vote”, did recognize that “it would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country…” As my friend Steve Bissette put it, “It’s discouraging how many folks I know (especially younger voters) rationalize and justify opting out. ‘It’s rigged’ is easy when your refusal to vote cinches the rigging.”
The trend for most of this country’s history was to expand the right to cast the ballot, from requiring direct elections of US Senators, to allowing women and 18-year-olds to vote. This retrenchment in recent years is discouraging for my sense of what democracy should look like. See A Dream Undone: Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act from the New York Times magazine.
One last thing: from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, learn about the disenfranchisement of Americans living in U.S. territories.