Voting Rights Act anniversary prompts calls for action

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MLK Holiday Breakfast
Community leader and activist Josie Johnson at the 23rd annual MLK Holiday Breakfast, Jan. 21, 2013 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. She's being honored for involvement in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2013

Josie Johnson remembers what it was like when voting came with a struggle.

As a young girl in Texas, Johnson helped her father gather signatures on petitions to try to abolish that state's poll tax. Not until she was in her 30s did she see such barriers struck down by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"We finally got the legal right to cast a vote," said Johnson, who moved to Minnesota and became known as a civil rights pioneer and educator. "And I believe as a citizen casting your vote and being able to express your wishes regarding critical issues and people is what citizenship is all about. So, for me, this is a historic moment."

It was soon after the violent attack on marchers in Selma, Ala., that President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to end voter disenfranchisement. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.

The landmark federal law banned literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory barriers that African-American voters in the South were facing at the time. "Today is a triumph for freedom," President Johnson said as he signed the law, "as huge as any victory that's ever been won on any battlefield."

LBJ signs Voting Rights Act
In this Aug. 6, 1965, photo, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Surrounding the president from left directly above his right hand, Vice President Hubert Humphrey; House Speaker John McCormack; Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y.; first daughter Luci Johnson; and Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill. Behind Humphrey is House Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma; and behind Celler is Sen. Carl Hayden, D-Ariz.
AP file

The six Democrats and four Republicans who made up Minnesota's congressional delegation at the time stood united in support of voting rights.

"I think it was one of the great, significant things we did," recalled then-Rep. Al Quie, now 91. "What really could be greater than protecting your right to vote? Now you have a voice in government. That means democracy can work."

Donald Fraser, also 91 and a contemporary of Quie's in the House, emphasized the need to keep working on the issue. "We've made a lot of progress in dealing with discriminatory practices of states that wanted to keep people from voting," he said. "Having gotten rid of that problem, mostly at least, it seems now that we ought to keep focusing on how we can improve the overall voting system."

Al Quie
Former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie, May 18, 2011 in St. Paul, Minn.
Jim Mone | AP 2011

There are two more surviving members of Minnesota's 1965 congressional delegation: former Sen. Walter Mondale and former Rep. Alec Olsen. All four will be honored Thursday afternoon in St. Paul during an event to mark the Voting Rights Act anniversary.

Also being honored is Josie Johnson.

"And of course Josie Johnson, a noted civil rights activist, was right there with those members of Congress," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, the host of the event. "We want to say thank you."

"There was widespread disagreement within the congressional delegation on so many issues," Simon said. "But on this issue, a signal issue of its time and a very important moral issue, all Minnesotans in Congress came together."

Simon said the anniversary is also an opportunity to look ahead and take steps to enhance voting rights.

As the state's top elections official, Simon is advocating for more early voting options, pre-registration for high school students and the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons who've completed their sentences.

"I think the key thing is to discuss ways we can always be improving access to the polls, making sure that eligible voters in Minnesota get that chance," he said.

The Voting Rights Act required some Southern states and local jurisdictions to get federal approval before changing election laws. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that section of the law two years ago.

Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison addresses supporters Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, during an election party at the DFL Headquarters at the Hilton Hotel in Minneapolis.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP 2014

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., remains concerned about that ruling. Ellison, the first African-American to represent Minnesota in Congress, said the court watered down the act and opened the door to more of the photo-ID laws that he opposes.

"They know that there are a lot of low-income people, a lot of people of color, a lot of seniors, people they don't want to vote, students, who don't have a government-issued ID," he said. "So they want to push these things to exclude people."

This week, in advance of the Voting Rights Act anniversary, Ellison introduced federal legislation that would prohibit photo ID requirements to vote. He also introduced a bill to require same-day registration for all federal elections.

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