On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. It aimed to ensure that African Americans and other often-disenfranchised populations had the same ability to exercise their right to vote (or not) as white Americans — basic stuff, really.
On Monday, public officials and activists gathered at the Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum in St. Petersburg to commemorate the month the landmark legislation that finally made it the law of the land that no eligible American would ever be stripped of his or her ability to cast a ballot.
Susan McGrath, executive director of Florida Consumer Action Network (which organized the event) called the act “one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever to be enacted in this country.”
“Especially in the South,” where the Jim Crow Era's disturbingly dystopian legacy included efforts to intimidate black voters, limit their access to polling places, force them to take literacy tests and even hurt or kill African Americans who tried to vote (and their families).
Monday's event wasn't exactly a celebratory one, though, given Republican efforts at the state and national levels to restrict minorities' access to what should be fundamental right — typically under the guise of voter fraud or punishing felons who have already paid their debts to society.
“The fundamental promise of American democracy is that every citizen gets a vote,” said Terri Lipsey Scott, chair of the museum. “No one could have made me believe ten years ago I would be standing here today addressing history past. But here we are today living this sad history in America.”
Among the most recent efforts to stifle some [read: ones that tend to vote for Democrats] populations' ability to participate in democracy are President Donald J. Trump's assembling of a voter fraud commission and the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision striking down aspects of the Voting Rights Act itself. In 2012, Governor Rick Scott sought to purge tens of thousands of "suspect" individuals from the state's voter rolls, though fewer than 90 individuals were ultimately removed.
Yet nobody outside of the most devout viewers and readers of Fox News and Breitbart really thinks voter fraud is at all a problem, let alone an epidemic as Trump appears to believe it is. In fact, those who are closest to the nation's voting systems say there's little to no evidence of it.
“Now, the proponents of these voter suppression tactics attempt to justify them simply as attempts to eliminate voter fraud," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch Monday. "But the broad consensus of elections supervisors across the United States is that our election system if safe and secure, and that substantial or even material voter fraud simply does not exist in our elections system.”
As disheartening as it all is, Welch said, it's important to keep calling out the party in power's devious efforts to subvert democracy.
“As we commemorate the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, we face the reality that the struggle for voting rights — the very core of our democracy — continues in 2017," he said. “Let us steel our resolve to preserve and protect voting access.”
When he was governor, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg), though he was then a Republican, fought to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons relatively early on in his sole term, and he suffered politically for it. But to him, allowing felons who had served their time to vote was a matter of fairness.
“As governor I had the honor to enact automatic clemency for those who had committed nonviolent felonies after they had served their time and paid their debt to society. Over 155,000 Floridians received their right to vote over those four years. We should do that on the national level and strengthen the Voting Rights Act,” Crist said Monday.
When Scott took office, he promptly did away with automatic clemency.
Now, there is a citizen-led effort to get voting rights restoration for nonviolent felons on the 2018 ballot.
Crist said he is also cosponsoring a bill in Congress alongside Civil Rights Movement icon and Atlanta-area Congressman John Lewis that would expand voting rights across the board nationally — though given Republican control of the House, the Senate and the White House, chances of it even being taken up are not good, at least for now. But at least it's there for the record.
“This bill would provide voter protections at the national level, such as automatic and online voter registration, 15 days of early voting, same-day voter registration and would also prohibit voter caging and other deceptive anti-voter practices,” Crist said. “A strong democracy should make it easier for Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote, not make it harder.”