It was only five days after Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bloody march on Selma, Alabama, that President Lyndon Johnson announced he planned to push the Voting Rights Act through a reluctant Congress.
King’s March 7, 1965, procession was met at the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge by Sheriff James Clark’s armed and, in some cases, mounted and masked posse, which attacked the peaceful demonstrators with clubs, whips and tear gas. One witness described the scene as “unhuman.”
When he signed the VRA into law five months later, Johnson declared: “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.”
Almost six decades later, some of the issues that prompted the march on Selma remain. Access to polling places was hampered in 2012 not by poll taxes and 21st-century literacy tests (“please read the top-two paragraphs of this blog”), but by long lines that acted as similar barriers.
Voters without flexible employers, or low-income parents without access to child care, were the ones most likely forced away by the long wait times that existed at polling places around the country last election. And as blacks and Latinos have the highest rates of poverty in the United States, they’re the voters most likely to be disenfranchised.
Now, Congress is waking up to that fact and seeing what it can do to improve voting access.
“People from both sides of the aisle are hearing these stories and they’re not happy about it. They know we can do better.”
Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Virgnia) and Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, held a fact-finding hearing in Woodbridge, Virginia, Monday. The committee heard from national election experts and state and local elected officials about what happened last November.
The committee heard about an African American working mother in Virginia who needed to return to the polls four times in between her work day and picking up her son from school before she could cast her ballot.
In another instance in the state, a Vietnamese-American couple came to vote early on November 6, but had to leave to open their business. They returned at the end of the day and waited until 9:30 p.m. to cast their ballot.
Virginia doesn’t have early voting, and citizens need an approved reason to file an absentee ballot; so voters must brave the long lines to cast their ballots.
Katie O’Connor, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a multiracial civil rights organization, says allowing early voting in states like Virginia is the first place to start.
“People from both sides of the aisle are hearing these stories and they’re not happy about it,” she tells TakePart. “They know we can do better.”
O’Connor, whose group chronicled the stories of voting delays for the committee, admits she’s skeptical that the 113th Congress will be able to make any meaningful electoral reform. She believes change will have to come at the state and local level.
While civil rights groups such as the Advancement Project and the NAACP are pushing state lawmakers to allow early voting and same-day registration, average people can take action, too.
“One thing the average person can and should do is volunteer on Election Day,” says O’Connor.
Working the polls doesn’t pay much and it requires a full-day commitment, which means time off from paid work. For that reason, it tends to attract retirees who fill the ranks but can get flustered dealing with the crush of heavy turnout.
“We tend to have [poll workers] who have been doing it for 30 years who can be out of touch with the people they’re helping,” O’Connor says.
The years ahead might not require another march on Selma. Improving voting access can be as simple as young people signing up to spend a day in a community center handing out ballots on Election Day. That could be just as powerful as marching on Washington.
After all, it was King who said: “Voting is the foundation stone for political action.”
Do you think the people disenfranchised by voting waits are disproportionately minorities? Air your views in COMMENTS.