The 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a cause for celebration. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson officially signed the Voting Rights Act and outlawed voter suppression tactics that had kept many African Americans from voting. This year’s celebration started early at the Landmark Center in Saint Paul by honoring the bipartisan Minnesota Congressional delegation who voted unanimously to pass the historic law.
On Thursday, hundreds gathered for the ceremony as Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon presented medallions to former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Gov. Al Quie, former Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser, former U.S. Rep. Alec Olson, and civil rights activist and community leader Dr. Josie Johnson. While the ceremony celebrated the landmark law, the focus was a call for action to continue the fight for the right to vote.
The community leaders and policy makers who worked to protect the vote for all Americans fifty years ago stressed that the work is not done. More than one speaker mentioned the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to roll back parts of the law allowing federal oversight of election regulations in some jurisdictions. Speaking about the legislation that that sprang up across the country following that Supreme Court decision, Mondale said, “They’re back at it again. And not only in the South, but around the country.”
And not just in other parts of the country, but right here in Minnesota. In 2012, a voter restriction law made it to the ballot. Luckily, Minnesotans voted to defeat it. As Mondale said:
“We have a lot to feel proud of. A lot of progress has been made, but in a real sense we’re right back having to fight for justice again.”
Minnesota is a state that values voting. We historically have high voter turnout and have supported rules that make it easier to vote, such as Election Day registration. But still not everyone can vote. This past year, a measure to restore voting rights for people on parole or probation was edited out of a judiciary bill. This measure would have granted the right to vote to 47,000 more Minnesotans. While many states limit voting rights for people convicted of a felony, only eleven states have laws more restrictive than Minnesota’s law. According to Mark Haase, a Twin Cities lawyer, Minnesota law hasn’t kept up with changing times, leaving many Minnesotans shut out of a basic civic right even after serving their time.
Limitations on the number of people who have a voice at the polls continues with voter identification laws, limited polling hours, and disenfranchising people who have rejoined their communities. As Dr. Johnson stated while being honored, “The right to vote is something we have to continue to fight for.” Let’s be the Minnesota that truly values voting. Let’s continue to support efforts to increase access to this fundamental civil right. Minnesota Secretary of State Simon ended his remarks at Thursday’s commemoration by saying:
“We can’t sit still when it comes to the right to vote in Minnesota and in America. Above all, let’s stay restless when it comes to voting rights.”
Let’s not sit still. Let’s stay restless. Let’s keep fighting to increase voting access.