Senate must take up Voting Rights Advancement Act without delay
I cast the first vote of my life on Sept. 11, 2001. Later that day, terrorist attacks destroyed lives and dreams. But I began the day with optimism, enthusiastic about my ability to vote after nearly two decades in the United States. I had become a naturalized citizen in December 2000, and my vote gave me a formal voice in my adopted home. The ability to vote helps determine who gets elected and what kind of policy environment people like me experience.
Like me, hundreds of thousands of other New Americans across the country are eager to exercise their right to make their voices heard in our democracy. Undeterred, and in fact spurred, by the president’s xenophobic executive orders and emboldening of extremists, immigrant communities across the country are taking to the polls.
During the 2018 midterm elections, voter turnout among Asian and Latino naturalized citizens easily outpaced those of U.S. born voters. Combined with the incredible opportunity New Americans have to determine elections in swing states with proper engagement, our democracy is on the cusp of record-high turnout for the 2020 presidential election.
This kind of record-breaking turnout could have been achieved years ago if everyone had easy, equitable access to our democracy. But because of hundreds of years of voter suppression and disenfranchisement, Congress is still overwhelmingly pale, stale and male. The result? Immigrants, refugees and other marginalized communities are underrepresented and constantly under attack by the very people who are supposed to represent them. To correct course, we need public officials to show some backbone by tackling our country’s long history of voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
Six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision. Originally passed during the height of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped register millions of voters — many of whom were voters of color — and paved the way for other democracy reforms such as lowering the voting age to 18 and requiring translated voting materials for citizens with limited English skills. But these progressive milestones were gutted in 2013 with Shelby County.
The effects of the Supreme Court’s decision were immediate – Texas announced a strict voter ID law the same day. Several states such as North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi quickly followed suit, and in the years since, states like Georgia and Ohio have purged hundreds of thousands of voters. Modern-day voting discrimination tactics are once again preventing eligible Americans from exercising their right to vote.
These obstacles have especially impacted New Americans, students, Indigenous communities, communities of color and low-income voters who must take off work, cover travel costs to distant polling locations, or pay for IDs just to access the polls. These factors keep establishment leaders in power, silence the voices of immigrant communities and communities of color, and prevent us from finding sustainable solutions to urgent issues impacting our communities. This is unacceptable. It’s time to restore power to the people and create a government that is reflective of America’s diversity.
House Democrats took the first steps this year by passing H.R. 1, a sweeping set of big, bold reforms that fight corruption in Washington. If signed into law, this legislation would end the dominance of big money, make it easier to vote, and ensure our officials are working to represent their communities, not special interests. But more change is needed to overcome the legacy of voter suppression. That’s why Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama introduced H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, to repair the damage done by Shelby County. If H.R. 4 restores the full power of the Voting Rights Act, H.R. 1 will ensure its permanence.
Last Friday, this sweeping and historic legislation was passed by the House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote. The Senate and Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) must now bring H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 to the floor for a vote immediately. All of us, and especially New Americans and people of color, must use our voices to speak out and demand action. Every senator, regardless of party affiliation, should support this vital measure and expand our democracy so it is truly of, by, and for the people.
Their vote on this legislation represents more than their thoughts about this political moment. This is not just about voting or democracy. It’s about the America we want to be: just, inclusive and representative.
Sayu Bhojwani is president of New American Leaders.