Thursday’s 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act is cause for celebration. But caution also is in order, as the right to vote recently has been eroded by state laws inspired by an unfounded fear of voter fraud, including in Kansas.
The law’s passage and signing by President Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, concluded a horrific sequence of events, including the murders of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and law enforcement’s violent response to a peaceful march in Selma, Ala. In prohibiting the poll taxes, literacy tests and other harassment that had denied blacks the right to vote, the law newly guaranteed them full citizenship and enabled the civic and political participation that led to the election of an African-American president.
Johnson said in signing the act, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and others at his side, that “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
Yet the momentum in recent years has been toward erecting new hurdles to the use of that power, often in ways that disproportionately affect would-be voters who are poor or minorities. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision stripped certain states of special oversight on election laws. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
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But Republicans in one of the states, North Carolina, responded quickly by making it harder to vote – with a law that recently went on trial in federal court.
Kansas had put up its own roadblocks earlier, persuaded by Secretary of State Kris Kobach of the need to require a photo ID to vote as of 2012 and documentation proving citizenship to register as of 2013. By this summer about 30,000 Kansans had landed on a list of people who can’t vote until they track down and produce the documents proving they aren’t illegal immigrants. Kobach has further barred the few Kansans who use the federal voter-registration form from voting for anything but president or Congress until they prove citizenship.
And rather than try to keep Kobach in check, the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback just empowered him to prosecute voter fraud himself. Kobach said this week that he was preparing to bring the first cases of voter fraud in September and October.
Not surprisingly, the Kansas Committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission voted last week to hold hearings early next year about whether the state’s strict new voter law suppresses voter turnout in some communities, as a 2014 Government Accountability Office study had suggested. Many Kansans also are suspicious of Kobach’s refusal to allow a Wichita statistician to do an audit of the accuracy of Sedgwick County’s voting machines. He’s making her sue to try to get the data.
“Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield,” Johnson said in signing the Voting Rights Act.
But voters and lawmakers in Kansas and across the country will need to be vigilant in order to ensure the battle stays won.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman