Editor’s Note: Derrick Johnson is president and CEO of the NAACP, and Chad Griffin is president of the Human Rights Campaign. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
In states with early voting, many have already headed to the polls to choose the elected officials who will help determine the future of our nation.
While elections often underscore what divides us, they also reflect the democratic principle that should unite us as Americans: that no matter who you are, all of us must have an equal voice in shaping our country.
The right to vote is the bedrock upon which this principle rests. It is the fundamental promise of our democracy. For more than 200 years, the story of our country has been a journey toward realizing a truer version of that promise.
And yet, today in America, this principle and our progress are under steady assault through a concerted effort to strip away voting rights from marginalized Americans. Empowered by the 2013 US Supreme Court decision that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, extremist politicians have relentlessly and shamelessly attacked access to the ballot box for millions of Americans.
As the leaders of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization and America’s largest LGBTQ equal rights group, the communities we represent are uniquely impacted by these discriminatory policies.
These politicians are closing polling places in precincts with high percentages of voters of color. They are drawing districts that disenfranchise and dilute the vote of communities more likely to vote for a particular party. They have created systems that, in some cases, take decades to restore voting rights for those who have paid their debt to society. They are passing unnecessary restrictions, like voter ID laws, built on the totally disproven myth of “voter fraud” – disproportionately targeting black, youth, LGBTQ, Native American, disabled and elderly voters.
Just weeks after taking office, the Trump administration even went so far as to set up a sham election commission under the leadership of Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to intentionally create suspicions of conspiracies about and among American voters. Ahead of this November’s election, Vice President Pence is doubling down on this discrimination with what the Human Rights Campaign has dubbed the “voter suppression tour,” stumping across the country for candidates like Kris Kobach and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who have built their careers on undermining the right to vote.
One federal court observed that redistricting efforts in North Carolina “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” In Georgia, a voter purge that targets mostly people of color may be the largest in US history. In North Dakota, Native American communities are becoming disenfranchised due to a new physical address requirement that disproportionately affects Natives living on reservations.
A recent poll found that African-American and Latino voters were roughly three times as likely as white voters to report trouble finding their polling place. One-third of transgender people report having no identity documents that reflect their gender identity, meaning voter ID laws forcibly out transgender voters to poll workers, putting them at risk for discrimination and harassment, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA.
One of the worst-kept secrets in America is that much of this is intentional. The forces who have aligned themselves against progress are doing this for their own narrow political advantage and hateful ideology.
At a time when the integrity of our elections is under real threat from autocratic regimes abroad and authoritarian demagogues at home, nothing is more central to the defense of our democracy than protecting the right to vote for all Americans. This is why the NAACP and HRC are fighting to protect voting rights and to support voters across the country in navigating the intentional confusion and discriminatory barriers created by this organized, politically motivated effort.
Recently, we’ve seen some critical victories, with courts striking down blatantly discriminatory laws in states like North Carolina, but too many have fought for too long to simply watch this fundamental right erode away in any state or corner of our country.
As voters head to the polls to elect a new Congress and state legislatures, they will be deciding the future of voting rights in America. We will be voting for state legislators who will choose whether to restrict or expand access to the ballot box. We will be electing members of Congress who can pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would not only restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act but also build on the progress of that legacy statute.
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Just 53 years ago, John Lewis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led hundreds across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to march for a national Voting Rights Act. Despite being bloodied and battered by police, they continued to march forward, bringing with them the hopes of millions more.
Decades later, with their work and our progress under siege, this generation has been called to carry the torch forward. Our democracy is on the line, and, in this election, we must answer the call to defend it.