Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the crowning jewel of the civil-rights movement — the Voting Rights Act — into law. This took place five months after peaceful advocates for voting rights were brutally beaten by police as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
As we pay homage, we are saddened by the state of our voting system and the lack of political will to fix it. Today, attention is focused on restoring Section 5 of the law, which required federal preapproval of any changes to voting law in certain states until it was invalidated by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. Although we do not oppose this “fix,” it is not the answer. Focusing on restoring Section 5 is like treating a symptom and not the disease itself. We should implement solutions that improve access to voting and get more citizens to participate in our democracy all over the U.S.
On such a fundamental issue, with Americans increasingly frustrated with government dysfunction and hyperpartisanship, why aren’t our leaders following the bipartisan blueprint of 1965?
Back then, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., was handed the pen Johnson used to sign the Voting Rights Act in recognition of his help in securing a bipartisan, filibuster-proof win in the Senate. In the House, more than 100 Republicans joined with Democrats to overwhelmingly support the act. Yet among our leaders today — on both sides of the aisle — citizenship has taken a back seat to partisanship even amid our voter-turnout crisis.
And it is a crisis.
In 2014, turnout sank to its lowest level in 72 years. Elections now appear to be more about voter suppression, with billions of dollars spent on negative ads designed to disparage candidates, than on motivating supporters to vote. Redistricting to protect incumbents and maintain the status quo has become a hyperpolitical process in most states. And our voting system is painfully outdated.
We live in an age in which virtually everything can be done from our phones. We can videoconference with family across the world; we can do our personal banking and even deposit checks. We board planes using bar codes on our screens. Yet for many Americans, the ultimate act of citizenship involves standing in long lines waiting to have their names located on reams of paper that appear to have been prepared with 1980s office equipment.
Further, the day on which we hold elections — the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November — dates to a minor 1845 act of Congress. It is not in the Constitution; it is not something our founders established. Congress simply wanted Americans to all vote for president on the same day and proceeded to choose one based on the needs of an agrarian society. Tuesday was picked because it didn’t interfere with market day (traditionally a Wednesday). And that particular Tuesday? To avoid All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), of course. It all made perfect sense then. It makes no sense now.
If the Congress of 1845 could set up a system that worked well for mid-19th-century voters, surely today’s Congress can set up one that works for 21st-century voters. Simple solutions are available. We have a three-step plan we call Vote 2.0:
1 To render moot objections to laws requiring voter IDs, especially in places where not everyone can easily obtain one, we should make photo IDs available to all through our Social Security offices. President Obama could do this today via executive order. All it would take is a little of the type of courage Johnson showed in 1965.
2 Tuesday need not be the only day we vote — indeed, only 14 states still restrict voting to a single Tuesday. It is ridiculous for us to expect single parents or folks working two jobs to be able to easily get to the polls on a Tuesday. If our elected officials think limiting voting to a Tuesday is good enough for elections, let them pledge to limit their campaign fundraising to Tuesdays as well.
3 The problem isn’t just with the day we vote. It begins at registration, and it is time to embrace online registration. Cost is certainly not an issue, since every state that has implemented this form of voter registration modernization has saved money. At least 28 states have already adopted, or are set to adopt, an online registration program. Surely elected officials can’t consider the Internet unreliable, given how much money they raise online. If something as important to politicians as fundraising can be modernized, why can’t we modernize the things that make participating in our democracy possible?
We must upgrade our voting system for the times we live in. This shouldn’t be difficult, but our Congress and president don’t seem to have the political will to act as Johnson and Dirksen did in 1965. Eight days after Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the president brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to tears when he went before Congress and proclaimed, “We shall overcome.” We call upon today’s leaders to reflect on the meaning behind King’s tears of hope and ask themselves: Why haven’t we overcome?
Andrew Young, a former member of Congress, mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations, is chairman of Why Tuesday?, a voting-reform organization. Martin Luther King III is president and co-founder of the Drum Major Institute. They wrote this article for the Washington Post.