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An historic moment for voting rights beckons | COMMENTARY

Protesters gather in an intersection near the U.S. Capitol building during a rally to press Congress to pass voting rights protections on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Protesters gather in an intersection near the U.S. Capitol building during a rally to press Congress to pass voting rights protections on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Six decades ago, many states, particularly in the South, passed laws to suppress the votes of people of color. The techniques varied, but they were all quite insidious: poll taxes, literacy tests, English proficiency requirements among them. Civil rights activists, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., held large and often peaceful demonstrations against this assault on democracy, with Dr. King once observing from an Alabama cell that there are more Black people “in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” Local leaders proved unsympathetic and gladly sent in police to break up marches like Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” where a 25-year-old protester named John Lewis led hundreds across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, only to be beaten down by state troopers.

Yet the violence proved so shocking to much of the nation, and the cause so just, that Congress rallied to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act by overwhelming, bipartisan margins of 79-to-18 in the U.S. Senate and 328-to-74 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats and Republicans alike saw the moral imperative in preserving voting rights for all. In short, they did not want to be remembered as standing up for racial discrimination instead of democratic ideals.

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Over time, however, the Voting Rights Act has been weakened through court decisions like that in Shelby County v. Holder. Red states with a history of racial discrimination began passing questionable laws in the wake of that 2013 ruling requiring, for example, voter identification that reduced the turnout of low-income, minority participants. In the Donald Trump era, the trend accelerated. Republicans, perhaps recognizing that long-term demographic trends worked against their political self-interest, united behind the false claim of widespread voter fraud. And new, less obvious but still insidious, barriers were created: Banning early voting on weekends, for example, when Black churches traditionally organized “Souls to the Polls” events.

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threw down the gauntlet. If Republicans won’t support federal voting rights legislation needed to reverse these state-level assaults on democracy, the Senate Democrats will have to go it alone. That leaves the spotlight on the two recalcitrant members of the caucus, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to support both voting rights legislation and a carve-out in Senate filibuster rules to allow the bill to pass with a simple majority. At stake are two essential measures, the Freedom to Vote Act, which supports early and mail-in voting, and the aptly-named John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act.

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On voting rights, it appears Senate Republicans have no shame as they buy into the “Big Lie” of the 2020 election and the ridiculous pretense of opposing “nationalized” elections. But what about Senators Manchin and Sinema? It is one thing to disagree with more liberal Democrats over the scale and purpose of federal spending or energy policy, it is quite another to align yourself with the wrong side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Do these two Democrats want to secure a place in the history books alongside Bull Connor? Or with Rosa Parks?

Last month, relatives of the late Dr. King made their preference clear: They do not wish to see his birthday celebrated this year if Congress fails to pass voting rights legislation. “Like those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, we will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America,” the Rev. Martin Luther King III wrote in a statement. To which we can only add: Amen.

Senator Schumer has set Monday, Jan. 17, the federal holiday observing MLK’s birthday, as the deadline for a Senate vote to change the filibuster rules in a 50-50 chamber. Will Senators Manchin and Sinema rise to the occasion? Or will they enable voter suppression that seeks to reduce the political clout of the less favored, less white American? As Dr. King once observed, the true measure of such individuals is not how they behave in “moments of comfort and convenience” but how they stand at a time of “controversy and challenges.”

That moment is now upon us.

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Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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