Fifty-five years ago, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and a group of Freedom Riders who were traveling through the South were accosted in a Montgomery Greyhound bus station and subsequently beaten over the head repeatedly with Coca-Cola crates.
By the end of the horrible ordeal, the then twenty-something civil rights activist lay unconscious in a pool of his own blood.
While it has become increasingly fashionable for Americans in contemporary society to display an astonishing degree of apathy and indifference toward the decision of whether or not they should even cast a ballot, it should be noted that they are only able to make that choice because of what happened to Lewis that night.
Even though the public dialogue surrounding this election cycle has been particularly devoid of substantive discussion of issues and appropriate policies, it must nonetheless be accentuated that voter suppression remains one of the most forgotten and infrequently discussed topics in our modern political discourse.
Indeed, many are either unable or unwilling to recognize that the policies of certain state legislatures across the country have caused the constitutional right of thousands of Americans to be placed into jeopardy.
Reminiscent of the infamous climate-change deniers who insist that no convincing and unequivocal scientific evidence points to the idea that global warming is a real phenomenon, legislators, judges and ordinary citizens alike seem to believe that we now live in a “post-Section five capital economy” world.
This assertion is a reference to Section Five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which established the concept of federal preclearance of election law and procedure.
In short, Section Five mandated that states with a particularly disreputable history of discrimination in voting had to have any change in election law approved by the federal government before it could take effect. The drafters of the legislation reasoned that voter suppression could be effectively monitored and the 15th Amendment could truly be observed.
But in 2013, Section 5 essentially became a dead letter.
Writing for the majority of the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts, based on the pretext that the formula for preclearance was outdated and that it violated the principle that states should “enjoy equal sovereignty,” proclaimed that voting discrimination was a thing of the past.
But of course it is not, and North Carolina is a case in point.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted new barriers to voting, including a photo I.D. requirement that disproportionally burdened minorities, students and other groups, the elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, the elimination of pre-registration for sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, and a host of other restrictions. However, in July 2016 the voter I.D. requirement was struck down.
Yet outside of civil and voting rights groups and activists, virtually no one took action to protest the legislation or even knew that it had been passed, although in their defense it was certainly not easy to recognize that change, as the bill was hastily passed in the few waning hours left in the legislature’s 2013 session.
However important the issues that we vote on are, there is nothing more important than making sure that all who wish to vote are able to cast their ballot, so that they can make their voices heard.
Nevertheless, voting discrimination has begun to take the form of a nebulous, ethereal monster that only existed in the dark days of de jure segregation.
It will serve Americans well to pay more attention to the issues of voter suppression because despite the ruling in July by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down North Carolina’s photo I.D. law and other restrictions, anyone familiar with how legislation and court rulings work knows that the letter of the law is often not the same as the reality on the ground.