Protecting the Right to Vote Here in America

By U.S. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC)

Last month, we marked the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before a quarter of a million people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. We all know the soaring oratory that Dr. King used to convey his dream of equity and racial harmony. But it was another part of that speech which brought marchers to Washington last month.

Dr. King closed that speech focusing on the darker, more sinister forces that were at work then and seem to be regaining prevalence today. He called out the segregationists with their “lips dripping with nullification and interposition” to prohibit Blacks from gaining equal treatment and voting rights. While today’s language has changed, the intent remains the same. It is disheartening to witness.

It was South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who my home state continues to celebrate with his statute in the U.S. Capitol, who popularized the notion that southern states could use interposition and nullification to disregard federal laws and Supreme Court decisions that did not comport to their way of thinking. Those that adhered to his philosophy fought and lost a war. That loss ushered in the Reconstruction era, and the political pendulum swung in favor of Black political participation and equitable treatment. But 12 years later, the pendulum swung back, ushering in the era of Jim Crow which lasted for nearly a century.

The injustices of that era sent Dr. King, John Lewis, and many others into the streets in the 1960s. Those efforts resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and a plethora of legislation known collectively as the Great Society programs. We succeeded in moving the pendulum back to the left. Now, some 50 years later, forces in the country are pushing the pendulum back to the right. Although nullification and interposition are no longer prominent in our political lexicon, the terms have since been rebranded into the more familiar term known as states’ rights.

Nine years ago, the Supreme Court gutted the pre-clearance protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That has led to a proliferation of states imposing voter suppression laws. This year, 49 states have introduced bills making it harder to vote. These bills have been enacted into law in 19 states, with two states of the old Confederacy, Georgia and Texas, leading the way with particularly egregious measures.

That is why the Senate must join the House in passing H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These two pieces of legislation are essential to restoring federal oversight of voting. These legislative efforts are being held hostage by the Senate’s filibuster rules, a tradition that has been the preferred method of denying civil and voting rights to minorities.

I have argued that a carve out should be made to the filibuster for constitutionally protected rights, like voting. The Senate already allows a carve out that allows the budget to pass with a simple majority to protect the full faith and credit of the United States. The most fundamental foundation of our democracy is the right to vote, and it should also receive the same consideration.

For some time now I have been calling on the Senate to pass these voter protection measures and stop the political forces who seem determined to reverse the progress made toward realizing Dr. King’s dream and the nation’s pursuit of “a more perfect Union.”

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