THE BLOG
09/17/2013 08:08 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2013

An America As Good As Its Promise

On March 7, 1965, civil rights leaders led 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to protest discrimination including the ongoing exclusion of black citizens from the voting process. At the end of the bridge, the police brutally attacked the peaceful marchers, unleashing tear gas, charging the protestors on horseback and beating them with billy clubs.

Our nation's conscience, like the countless wounded on that march, still bears the scars of that day.

Six months after "Bloody Sunday," as that day came to be known, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights legislation reinforcing the 15th amendment, which grants citizens the right to vote regardless of their race or color. While the 15th amendment has been in our Constitution since 1870, it took the Voting Rights Act to help realize the amendment's promise of equality at the polls.

But despite the progress we have made in the decades since the Voting Rights Act was passed, we still struggle to make sure all Americans have access to the polls. Even in presidential elections, we often see fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot, and voter access, while not the only factor, is still clearly an issue. When a 102-year-old woman waits six hours to vote because of a reduction in early voting days, as Desiline Victor did in Florida this past Election Day, we have not yet, to quote former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, become "an America as good as its promise."

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled a key part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. That section was the formula used to determine the states and localities that would be subject to pre-clearance by federal officials of changes to voting rights in those areas.

Striking down this portion of the Voting Rights Act poses a serious threat to the critical fight to ensure all Americans have access to the polls. In fact, since the Supreme Court's ruling, we have already seen states move to make it harder for Americans to vote, such as in Texas where the state government has begun to implement one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country, and in North Carolina, which will begin requiring state-issued IDs at the polls beginning in 2016.

We simply can't sit by and let this happen. The continued vitality of our Constitution and the survival of each freedom it protects, depend upon the right to vote and the vibrant democracy it affords us. In short, the right to vote underlies each of our other rights.

So we need to act. Specifically, Congress needs to take legislative action to amend the Voting Rights Act so it continues to protect voters' access to the polls. We cannot abandon the principles that got us where we are today. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it so well in her dissent, ending pre-clearance now "is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."

I am under no illusion that amending the Voting Rights Act in Congress will be easy, but with bipartisan calls for legislation to address it, I'm confident we are moving in the right direction.

There are many fronts in the fight to make voting easier for all. I have introduced legislation with Senator Jon Tester of Montana to provide the option of same-day registration in every state for federal elections, as we already have in Minnesota. My fellow Minnesotan Rep. Keith Ellison is leading the bill in the House. The numbers show that same-day registration works. In fact, five of the six states with the highest turnout in 2012 -- including Minnesota -- have same-day registration. This isn't a partisan issue -- red, blue and purple states from Iowa to New Hampshire to California all have embraced this policy. I believe same-day registration has to be part of comprehensive reform of our voting systems that will also restore pre-clearance, shorten lines at polls and ensure that no one who wants to vote is denied their constitutional right.

This year I joined Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was fractured on 'Bloody Sunday,' to commemorate that day in Selma. That weekend, after 48 years, the white police chief of Montgomery handed his police badge to Congressman Lewis and publicly apologized for the police not protecting him and the marchers alongside him.

The gesture was a powerful symbol of how far we have come since that day, but it was also a reminder that there is always more work to be done to advance those rights afforded to us in the Constitution.

The challenges we face are clear. But we have the tools to tackle them. We can fix the Voting Rights Act, we can pass the Same-Day Registration Act and other important election reforms, and we can finish the march that Congressman Lewis and so many other brave men and women started in Selma all those years ago. I can think of no better day to rededicate our efforts to the spirit of that march than today -- Constitution Day -- when we honor the founding document that grants us the rights and the freedom that make this country great.