A Mighty Right
This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. From the beginning, the right to vote has been understood as the crown jewel of the rights free people hold dear. For it is the gateway to all other rights.
During the struggle to found our nation, Thomas Paine declared, “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which all other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery.”
Yet, when I was growing up in Virginia nearly 200 years after Paine’s declaration, 100 years after passage of the 15th Amendment, barriers still faced African-Americans wishing to exercise their right to vote: legal ones such as literacy tests and poll taxes, and more overt forms of intimidation.
Still, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And he was doing some heavy bending at the time. “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.” In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and breathed life into the 15th Amendment nearly 100 years after its passage.
In 2004 and 2005, the changes brought about by this legislation have been profound. We saw a black man elected to the Senate, a Hispanic confirmed as attorney general, and a Chinese-American complete a second term as governor of Washington. At times, we seem to take this all in stride. At other times, the power of it can take your breath away. But, as we know, democracy is not easy.
In November, lawyers in communities nationwide turned out to make sure that voting went smoothly. For the most part it did. But complaints about interference made front-page news. To some, these complaints seemed overblown. But the right to vote was denied for so long to so many that we cannot afford to ignore any impediment to its exercise. Let us take time to thank the lawyers and judges whose work helps ensure that votes are cast and counted.
Sharing The Dream
Around the world, the right to vote is a life-or-death matter. Last year, the ABA conducted workshops for the justices of the Ukrainian Supreme Court. Little did we realize that a few months later the court would use its power and the rule of law to invalidate a corrupt presidential election.
Like many of you, I watched as many Ukrainians braved the cold and threats of violence to march on their capital because their right to vote had been stolen. I was reminded of a march on another capital an ocean away and decades before. I realized those freezing masses in Kiev had a dream, and it was the same dream of those who marched on Washington with Dr. King: To be full and equal participants in their democracy. To vote and have their votes counted. The moral arc of the universe was bending a little more. Most recently, we watched as the citizens of Iraq began the process of electing their government. Even the threat of death could not keep these long-oppressed people from firmly grasping the right to vote.
Several weeks ago, I celebrated another first as L. Douglas Wilder became the first popularly elected African-American mayor in Richmond’s history. Forty years after the Voting Rights Act, citizens of all races elected him in a landslide. As he took the oath of office in a former capital of the Confederacy, I thought of the generations of struggle that brought us to this moment. And I thought of the duty each generation owes to those that follow.
I felt the moral arc touch down.
Look for the Presidential Showcase Program on the Voting Rights Act at the ABA Annual Meeting, Aug. 4-9 in Chicago.