The Voting Rights Act of 1965 belongs on any short list of consequential 20th-century federal legislation. It widened access to the polls for Americans of color by outlawing vote-suppressing tactics that had been used primarily in the states of the former Confederacy in the century after the Civil War. And it provided a legal avenue for court challenges of future voting restrictions — thereby remaining relevant to this day.
That landmark legislation deserves commemoration on its 50th anniversary next week, as do the lawmakers whose votes made it happen. That included all eight Minnesota members of the U.S. House — four Republicans and four Democrats — and both Minnesotans in the U.S. Senate. Their show of bipartisan unanimity was rare, even in that less-polarized era. It’s a point of pride for this state, then and now.
Thursday at 2 p.m., a ceremony at St. Paul’s Landmark Center will thank the four surviving members of the 1965 Minnesota delegation — former Vice President (then U.S. Sen.) Walter Mondale, former Gov. (then U.S. Rep.) Al Quie, former Minneapolis Mayor (then U.S. Rep.) Don Fraser and former U.S. Rep. Alec Olson. Also saluted will be former University of Minnesota Vice President Josie Johnson, who 50 years ago was a civil rights lobbyist and organizer in Minneapolis.
That’s a well-deserved tribute. But to the credit of Secretary of State Steve Simon and the planning council he established, there’s more than praise for elder statesmen in store in this state’s commemoration of the Voting Rights Act.
At an event at 5:30 p.m. next Thursday at the Harrison Neighborhood Association in Minneapolis, today’s challenges to voting rights will be detailed and citizens enlisted for efforts to improve voter turnout. This fall, more than 60 high school visits have been scheduled by Simon and volunteers from the 50 organizations that have signed on as community partners for the effort. They aim to teach students the nation’s voting rights story and invite students to help write that story’s next chapter.
It’s not clear that the next chapter will be in keeping with the story of widening inclusivity that is told about the Voting Rights Act. In recent years, many states have required photo ID cards for voting (a move Minnesota voters rejected in 2012) and shortened early-voting periods — both moves shown to disproportionately depress the African-American vote. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the 1965 law, freeing nine southern states to alter their election laws without advance federal approval. New state laws and more litigation have been the result.
Seen against that backdrop, the Voting Rights Act isn’t a historical artifact. It’s a major milepost in a journey toward the “more perfect union” envisioned by the nation’s founders. It’s well that Minnesotans not only remember those who walked that road before, but also prepare and encourage those who will take the next steps, as voters themselves.