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With Thanksgiving just a week away and the movie “Lincoln” opening in theaters tomorrow, we might do well to remember that the first Thanksgiving was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln at a time when our country was embroiled in civil war over whether all Americans were really created equal.
Right now, we are still analyzing the results of an election in which a diverse electorate returned to the White House a man of color. From the beginning, the United States has been racially, ethnically and culturally diverse and yet less than fifty years ago, it was impossible to imagine that Barack Obama could be elected president or that a member of any racial or ethnic minority could be elected to any high office. The progress we have made in the late 20th and early 21st century is due primarily to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
The Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution freed the slaves, made them citizens and gave Congress the power to ensure that no citizen would be denied the right to vote based on race or color. It took Congress 95 years to exercise that power through the VRA. In the meantime, a bloc of Senators employed high-sounding language and legislative maneuvers to preserve a system of segregation and Jim Crow voting laws.
Throughout our history those wanting to preserve an elite power structure have made arguments that sound principled but are really a cloak to maintain their power: the three-fifths compromise, nullification and states’ rights. Now they add the lexicon of federalism, voter fraud, and voting by felons and illegal immigrants. The current Supreme Court has not afforded the voting rights of the vulnerable the same dignity as speech rights of moneyed interests. Following the 2008 election, the Court not only took up, but actually created Citizens United v. the FEC in order to vitiate meaningful restrictions on campaign finance. Three days after this election, the Court agreed to hear a challenge by Shelby County, Alabama to the Voting Rights Act.
The League was founded to make voting meaningful not only for the millions of women enfranchised by the Nineteenth Amendment but for all Americans. We have achieved great things, but we are certainly not near where we should be in protecting every citizen’s right to vote. The League has been and will continue to speak up for voting rights and for the Voting Rights Act.
Let’s hope that the Justices are paying attention.