Last week, Joe Biden had the opportunity to make history by selecting a Black woman to be his running mate. Fortunately, he took that opportunity. In the run-up to the anniversary of the 19th amendment, which did not secure the right to vote for all women, Kamala Harris was selected as Biden’s VP pick, a significant moment for all women who have long been disenfranchised from our democracy. Thank God Harris was so ambitious.
It’s also important to acknowledge that this move signifies a permanent break in the glass ceiling, opening up the possibilities for all women—not just white women—to find their place in leadership roles. I have high expectations that, with Harris on the ticket, we can move closer to new ways of thinking and a better sense of understanding on the issues that impact women and people of color in America, such as healthcare access, the pay gap, protection against domestic violence, and an end to the rampant police violence that plagues our cities and families.
But with less than 90 days left before the election, we must all turn our attention to the ballot box, which is under attack. In order for us to set this new agenda and bring about a new course of action for our country, we must first address the voter suppression tactics that continue to impede voters’ rights in one of the most critical elections of our lifetime, particularly considering the significant health risks involved due to COVID-19.
Since the passing of civil rights pioneer and American hero Rep. John Lewis, the call to restore the Voting Rights Act has grown louder. The 1965 legislation, which banned discriminatory voting practices, was imperfect but had a tremendous impact on expanding voting rights before it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder.
This is a wonderful sentiment. But unfortunately, it’s not nearly enough. As a daughter of Selma, a lifelong organizer, and the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, I believe it’s time for a more radical reimagining of American democracy and the role of women in shaping that democracy.
Voter suppression is thriving in our country right now. The primaries in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas offer recent examples of excessively long lines, closing of multiple poll sites, and the use of voter ID laws that overwhelmingly impact Black and Brown communities. Voter suppression also disproportionately impacts women, and particularly women of color. Most women don’t have the luxury and/or privilege to stand in line for hours in order to cast their vote. Many are caretakers with the responsibility of caring for the infirm, disabled, elderly parents, children and/or loved ones. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the majority of domestic workers are women of color.
And the painful reality is that there is no recourse for the institutions and politicians who disenfranchise voters. Brian Kemp was Georgia’s secretary of state and a gubernatorial candidate when he oversaw the removal of thousands from voter rolls in a brazen example of self-interest. Today, as Georgia’s governor, he presided over a disastrous primary that attracted international attention for its dysfunction.
The Voting Rights Act should be reinstated but only as a temporary measure. I want and deserve better, as do more than 300 million of my fellow Americans. There is still no constitutional right to vote. The Bill of Rights and seven of the 27 amendments have been enacted to expand the franchise and improve the way citizens vote. There have been important steps along the way, but we still need sweeping changes to our current electoral system that will ensure and protect the right to vote for all citizens.
One upside of this summer’s nationwide response to police violence against Black people is that the scales are falling from the eyes of many who have refused to see systemic racism and entrenched inequality. We should recognize the power of this moment and take a leap forward. I want to see a National Voter’s Bill of Rights that would enshrine the rights of voters and fulfill the promise of the constitution.
To ensure that the Voter’s Bill of Rights is enforced, we need a federal agency at the cabinet level, just like the Department of Defense. A Department of Democracy would actively look at the patchwork of election systems across the 50 states and territories. It would establish better mechanisms and technologies and monitor their implementation. With federal oversight, our nation can finally ensure our democratic right to vote.
History happens in cycles, and we are in a particularly intense one. Trump serves as a useful bogeyman for systemic and entrenched racism, but it’s too easy to blame him for where we are. We have been fighting for the soul of democracy, kicking and screaming and marching and protesting its erosion for decades. As we reflect on the suffrage movement today, it is important to recognize how central the leadership of women has been in achieving voting rights in this country. It is equally important to recognize that our work is not done until we end voter suppression.
It brings me no joy to point out how far we are from realizing full and fair access to the ballot. But the true promise of the Voting Rights Act is within reach—if we are willing to take big steps forward to achieve it. As we all know, women have the power to make things happen. So today we celebrate not just this moment with Harris, but the legacies of Black women like Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Amelia Boynton, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Church Terrell who helped to shape this victory, and the many more unsung women suffragists who envisioned a future closer to the ideals of democracy than their time allowed them to realize. We will continue to build on that legacy until everyone has access to full voting rights.
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