The best way to honor King: Pass federal voting rights laws

The future of our democracy demands no less.

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The nation can best honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King by enacting voters’ rights laws now before the U.S. Senate.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King holiday presents a maddening paradox for anyone concerned about the ideals espoused by the slain civil rights leader.

King’s work and life will be honored and lauded across the nation today in ways that would have been unimaginable in the 1960s. And yet, the laws that would concretize and guarantee the freedoms and rights — particularly the right to vote — King fought for continue to be usurped, challenged and unraveled.

Which bring us to the travesty happening right now in the U.S. Senate, where a majority of Republican lawmakers are set to use a filibuster to block bills that would help guarantee voting rights.

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The Senate could vote for a rule change that would disallow the filibuster and clear the path for the bills’ passage. But Republican senators, along with a pair of turncoat Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., oppose the change in rules.

The King holiday demands we see these efforts (and the obstructionism of Sinema and Manchin) for what they are: an assault on democracy that is every bit as repugnant as the attempted coup on Jan 6, 2021.

And the best way to honor King’s legacy is for lawmakers, President Joe Biden and the public to fight and scrap to get the laws passed. The future of the democracy demands no less.

Two bills, one purpose

If enacted into law, the two bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — would provide a host of provisions intended to make it easier to cast a ballot by combatting restrictive voting laws enacted by states and pushing back against Supreme Court rulings that have had the effect of curtailing the protections of existing federal voting laws.

For instance, under the Freedom to Vote Act, Election Day would be a national holiday. And all voters would be eligible to vote by mail.

The formerly incarcerated would have their right to vote in federal elections guaranteed, rather than the current practice of leaving the decision up to states.

Named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights luminary, the John Lewis Act is essentially a dose of smelling salts designed to revive the weakened portions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Among other things, the Lewis act calls for the restoration of the 1965 act’s requirement that states — particularly those with a track record of unequal access to the ballot — get federal approval to change their voting laws.

The act would also require some states to get federal approval to reduce, consolidate or relocate voting locations, or the hours when ballots can be cast.

These are the kinds of laws King would have likely supported — and that the GOP is against, given how the results of mail-in ballots and existing voting laws, as imperfect as they are, helped stop their standard-bearer from winning a second term in the White House.

“The honest to God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” President Biden said last week. “As long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting.”

That battle will continue this week as the Senate meets to debate the issue, and Biden — who touted his 40-year Senate career as part of his bona fides for the job he now holds — works the margins and the middle to find more Senate support for the laws.

He had better fight. And ultimately win.

‘Misguided senators’

“I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.”

Those words about stalled voting rights legislation were not uttered today or even last week, but 59 years ago by King himself, speaking at a U.S. Information Agency news conference in 1963.

That we would find ourselves here today, nearly two-thirds of a century after King sounded the alarm, is an affront to his memory.

And on this day especially, it should be an insult to every citizen and lawmaker, particularly in a country that holds itself out to the world as a beacon of democracy.

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