51 Years After Bloody Sunday, Voting Rights Are Still out of Reach

The anniversary is a potent reminder that voter suppression efforts are alive and well.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (second from right) leads a voter protest march in Selma, Alabama, on March 9, 1965. Over his right shoulder is Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy. King's aide Andrew Young is in the foreground. (Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
Mar 6, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Sunday, thousands of people will gather to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, remembering those who risked their lives for the right to vote. The people who marched from Selma to Montgomery half a century ago were attacked by police wielding clubs and tear gas.

Their bravery on “Bloody Sunday”—March 7, 1965—paved the way for the introduction of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson five months after that violent day. The act is considered one of the most important civil rights laws in U.S. history. But in spite of the law’s historic introduction, voter discrimination is alive and well today. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the act in Shelby County v. Holder, stripping the law of some of its most essential protections for voters—particularly voters of color. The court’s ruling allowed states with a history of voter discrimination to change their voting rules without approval from the Department of Justice.

In the first presidential election year since the Voting Rights Act was gutted, the absence of those provisions is especially palpable. Here are four ways the fight for voting rights continues today.

1. Voter I.D. Laws Are Spreading Like Wildfire

Under the guise of fighting voter fraud, GOP lawmakers in states across the country have introduced strict voter ID laws that require voters to show a government-issued photo ID to cast their ballot. While flashing a driver’s license might not sound like a big deal, studies have found that roughly 11 percent of eligible voters don’t have a photo ID, and the process of obtaining one is more likely to exclude young people, low-income people, and people of color.

In the eight states that have enacted voter ID laws since 2010, Democratic turnout has dropped by 37 percent since this year’s primaries and caucuses began, according to data from the Brennan Center for Justice. Meanwhile, in the states that didn’t enact such laws, Democratic turnout was down just 13 percent. Compared with 2008, Republican voter turnout is up 62 percent.

2. Early Voting and Same-Day Registration Are Becoming Things of the Past

Once a great option for people who knew they wouldn’t be able to make it to the polls during the regular voting period, early voting options are being limited or shut down entirely by voter suppression laws.

In North Carolina, one of the most aggressive examples of such laws is currently the subject of a lawsuit led by the state chapter of the NAACP. An expert’s report in the trial found that 41 percent of black voters in the state used same-day registration in 2012, and estimated that 30,000 people were unable to vote in the 2014 midterm elections because of the law. Since the last presidential election, 16 different states have introduced new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center.

3. Nearly 6 Million People Can’t Vote Because of Their Criminal Record

Individual state laws that bar people with felony convictions from voting, even after they’ve served their time, have excluded millions of potential voters from the democratic process. Because people of color are more likely to be incarcerated than white people, this restriction also disproportionately excludes voters of color.

In spite of this vast number of disenfranchised people, there is momentum for change: In February, people with felony convictions regained the right to vote in Maryland. Connecticut and Rhode Island have also loosened voting restrictions on people with criminal records in the last decade.

4. Voting Districts are Unfairly Redrawn in Favor of One Party or the Other

Redistricting, in which voting-district boundaries are redrawn, is controlled by each state and is often managed by state legislators. While redrawing these lines is often done in response to census results, the process is increasingly being used to unequally divide Democratic and Republican voters in order to garner numeric support for specific political candidates—a process that, when deliberate, is called gerrymandering.

The Supreme Court had a hand in making this process possible. As ThinkProgress notes, a 2004 decision barred federal courts from hearing legal challenges to states’ gerrymandering, which leaves lawmakers free to redraw districts block by block to suit their needs.

A stark example of gerrymandering can be found in Shelby County, Alabama. Ernest Montgomery, the only black city council member in Calera, Alabama, lost his seat after his district was redrawn in 2008 to drastically change its population and size. Before the redrawing, Montgomery’s district was 69 percent African American; after it was redrawn, that number dropped to 29 percent. Because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was still intact when the lines were redrawn, Montgomery was able to win a lawsuit in which the Justice Department ultimately voided Calera’s redistricting plan and threw out the election results.