BY CONGRESSMAN STEVE ISRAEL
As young students return to classrooms around the country this fall, they will turn to history textbooks to learn about one of the most significant days in American history — Aug. 6, 1965.
On that day, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. This legislation, like a shining beacon of hope, brought our nation out of the dark and bloody years of the Civil Rights movement toward a more just and inclusive democracy.
For the first time, barriers between minorities, non-English speakers, other disenfranchised voters and the ballot box were removed. Millions of Americans could exercise their fundamental right to vote and play a role in the democratic process. Their ability to cast a ballot was built on a foundation of decades of sacrifice and tireless activism by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my friend and colleague Congressman John Lewis and countless others.
But unlike how it’s likely depicted in the history textbook, the battle for voting rights did not end on Aug. 6, 1965. The struggle for progress has continued. Most recently, in 2013, the Supreme Court shamefully gutted a portion of the Voting Rights Act that dictated which state and local governments, with a history of voter discrimination, were required to get approval from the federal government before enacting any changes to their voting laws. Almost immediately, we saw headlines about state legislatures moving bills to limit early voting, implementing discriminatory photo ID requirements, and purging thousands of names from voter files without any merit or facts.
Disenfranchising millions of Americans from voting is a stain on our democracy that we cannot allow to continue. Even if we don’t see the poll taxes and literacy tests of the past, new discriminatory restrictions on voting rights are to this day making it harder for some Americans to exercise their fundamental right to cast their vote.
Just as Congress took a stand in 1965, both sides of the aisle must come together to ensure states and localities cannot restrict the right to vote. It is simply too important. The court may have weakened the law, but it is Congress’s job to act swiftly to strengthen and renew these protections.
House Democrats are determined to restore the Voting Rights Act. I, along with 89 of my colleagues, have introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, which would restore the protections struck down by the Supreme Court and ban new efforts to suppress voting among growing minority communities.
The importance of this fight cannot be understated. We must look no further than the words spoken by President Johnson in March 1965 on the floor of the House of Representatives: “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
On the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, instead of celebrating its accomplishments, we are again fighting for its survival. I implore Speaker Boehner to take action, put politics as usual aside, and remember the words of President Johnson. Our nation cannot move forward if we allow American voters to be suppressed from exercising their most basic right as citizens.
Let’s not turn back the clock and rebuild roadblocks to voting from our nation’s history. We need to leave those memories in the history books young students will read about in classrooms this school year. Instead, we need to strengthen our democracy by protecting the equal right to vote for those young Americans and for our entire country. That fundamental right to vote and participate in our democracy is truly what makes America great and it’s what so many brave Americans have fought to protect.
Congressman Israel represents New York’s Third Congressional District, which includes areas of Bayside, Bay Terrace, Bellerose, Douglaston, Glen Oaks, Little Neck and Whitestone.