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A critical milestone in the fight for racial justice in the United States was the passage of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Access to the ballot (or enfranchisement) allowed Black voters — especially those in the South — to build political and legislative power, elect legislators, and enact laws that could change the material conditions of their lives.

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The Supreme Court’s gutting of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 has paved the way for a slew of “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” legislation that restricts and discourages civic participation across the country. This decision has had disastrous effects for communities of color, LGBTQ communities, and women. While a state Supreme Court judge in North Carolina recently struck down a suppressive voter ID law for its targeting of Black voters with “almost surgical precision,” make no mistake: In 2016: voter suppression is in full effect.

The 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act reminds us that as long as people are denied access to the ballot, neither democracy nor justice can be achieved. The attack on voting rights is a direct threat to reproductive health, rights, and freedom. It is vital that we prioritize the fight for voting rights to ensure full and adequate reproductive health services for all.

Why The Vote?

Since our nation’s earliest days, voting has remained a critical avenue for social and political change. During our country’s inception, white, landowning men were the only class of people allowed to vote. Thus, it became important for people from marginalized communities — especially women and people of color — to demand the ballot as a means to achieve social and political self-determination.

The prioritization of full enfranchisement — including legislation like the Voting Rights Act — during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras came from an understanding that until African Americans were able to hold political office, influence elections, and make the laws that impacted our communities, we would not be able to have full autonomy over our lives.

The protections of the VRA fundamentally shifted political power for Black communities.

“… the percentage of eligible black voters [in Mississippi] registered ballooned from 7% in 1964 to 67% just five years later.

… Even before black candidates began to win public offices, even in remote areas like Panola County, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, white politicians were wooing the most influential members of the black community.

There and elsewhere, black residents who had long despaired of ever getting their streets repaired were suddenly spotting maintenance and even paving crews in their neighborhoods. Meanwhile...from courthouses to statehouses, a significant black presence [as a voting bloc] has typically meant meaningful gains in black employment, income, and opportunity.”

TIME, 8/6/2015

People fought and died for more than the right to vote — they fought and died for dignity and their humanity to be recognized and affirmed. The two are inextricably linked. We cannot disentangle the right to hold elected officials accountable through voting from our ability to practice self-determination.

This is what the Voting Rights Act sought to do and why it remains critical to this day.

Now What?

Studies have shown that voter ID laws have already suppressed voter turnout for Latino and Black communities. In primary elections, the states with discriminatory photo ID laws saw a decrease in Latino voter turnout by 6.3 percent and a 1.6 decrease for Black voters.

We know that civic participation in the U.S. trails that of other developed countries and is at an all-time low. Appallingly, conservative legislators’ response to this has been to attack one of the linchpins in voter protections.

Under the guise of stopping voter fraud, voter ID laws and laws that restrict early and/or same-day voting have arisen across the country. In reality, these laws make it much, much harder for eligible voters to cast their votes.  

Fighting back against these laws starts with making sure everyone who can cast a vote is registered and ready for November.

That’s why we’re educating our members about the intersections of voter suppression and reproductive rights, encouraging our supporters to vote, and urging Congress to #RestoreTheVRA.

Voting rights are reproductive rights. We must fight back against the attempts to silence our communities through voter suppression.

Samantha Master is a Black, queer, feminist activist and educator from Washington, DC, and the African American engagement manager at PPFA.

Tags: Election 2016, Voting Rights, African Americans

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