The state of voting rights in America

A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place in Manchester, N.H.
A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place in Manchester, N.H. AP

The vote is the most powerful tool in a democracy. To harness its full power however, voting must be accessible, protected and broadly exercised.

In his award-winning history of voting in America, Professor Alexander Keyssar explains that American democracy is contested. He traces the history of the vote from the revolutionary period to contemporary times and shows that our nation, conceived in democratic ideals, has expanded the franchise only gradually and with the concerted efforts of those demanding access to the vote, and through it, to meaningful inclusion within the nation’s political life.

This Friday, the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) will travel to Raleigh, North Carolina to conduct a day-long briefing on the topic of the federal government’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

USCCR is a federal advisory investigative agency and bipartisan body established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957. When USCCR was founded, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson observed that USCCR “can be a useful instrument. It can gather facts instead of charges; it can sift out the truth from fancies; and it can return with recommendations which can be of assistance to reasonable [people].” For 60 years, USCCR has played an important role examining the state of minority voting rights access. USCCR published written reports, the first of which was written in 1959, that contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, subsequent extensions of the law as well as other significant voting and civil rights laws.

While our briefing will focus on the Department of Justice’s Voting Rights Act enforcement, the Commissioners will hear from a range of experts and commentators with different views, perspectives and experience regarding voting rights. The Briefing will include a two-hour open public comment period in which the people may share their views and experience with the voting franchise.

Although the briefing will take a broad look at Voting Rights Act enforcement nationally, it is significant that this briefing will take place in North Carolina, a state that has figured so prominently in the history of minority voting rights from the Reconstruction period to the present day, including in the period since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a core Voting Rights Act protection covering North Carolina in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. Many cases – including several decided by the U.S. Supreme Court – have arisen out of North Carolina, and that pattern persists.

Voting in America has expanded over time through effective advocacy, political leadership, and sometimes only after people were killed because they courageously joined the fight for voting rights. Our democracy is a process, indeed more amendments to our Constitution deal with some aspect of voting than any other subject. On February 2, in Raleigh, North Carolina USCCR will take the measure of Voting Rights Act enforcement in the United States. If a democracy is measured by access to the vote, there is perhaps no more important question to examine than whether the minority inclusion principles embodied in the Voting Rights Act are being honored and to what extent.

Our democracy is contested but the work to assess its vibrancy continues this week in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Debo P. Adegbile is a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, LLP, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and argued Shelby County v. Holder in the U.S. Supreme Court. This op-ed was written in his individual capacity.

The USCCR briefing “An Assessment of Minority Voting Rights Access in the United States” will take place Friday, February 2, 2018 beginning at 9:00 a.m. at the Marriott Crabtree Raleigh Durham.