Ensuring all Americans can participate in free, fair, and open elections

As we celebrate Black History Month, and reflect on the importance of voting rights, it is an opportune time to reflect upon the legacy of an American hero, John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Congressman from Georgia. As many of you know, Congressman Lewis announced late last year that he is battling pancreatic cancer. My prayers are with him during this time.

It was 55 years ago, on a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, that John Lewis and hundreds of civil rights activists were brutally attacked by state troopers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama as they marched in protest of the Jim Crow system that denied equal rights to black Americans. At that march, Lewis and his fellow marchers joined together to demand the full and equal opportunity to participate in our American democracy. They called on our nation to make good on the promise made in the 15th Amendment, which provides for the universal right to vote.

During the Jim Crow era, millions of our citizens were denied the right to vote. As literacy tests, poll taxes, and overt intimidation of black citizens became the norm, our nation’s leadership did not represent the people. The moral courage—and physical courage in the face of violence—of Lewis and others highlighted this travesty of justice and catalyzed support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which President Lyndon Johnson called for eight days after Bloody Sunday and signed into law that summer.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act guards against racial discrimination in voting systems by instituting a system known as “pre-clearance.” Section 5’s pre-clearance process required states and localities with histories of egregious voting discrimination, before changing their voting laws, to first to get those proposed changes approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since its enactment, the pre-clearance process proved both necessary and effective. In the decades since 1965, thousands of discriminatory voting changes were blocked under Section 5’s pre-clearance regime. Over time, the threat of Section 5 enforcement deterred states and local governments from proposing discriminatory changes. But the effectiveness of Section 5 hid an ugly truth—that in many parts of the country, the underlying desire to prevent black and other non-white citizens from voting remained strong.

Despite overwhelming congressional support for the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court stepped in to undermine this important law. In 2013, the Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision invalidated the formula for deciding which states and municipalities needed to obtain pre-approval for their voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Consequently, states and localities with past records of discrimination were no longer subject to the pre-clearance process.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s decision in Shelby County. In her dissent, she noted with disdain that “throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” As Justice Ginsburg predicted, the Shelby County decision has opened the floodgates to a torrent of new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect voters of color.

We are living in a scary time. In recent years, we have witnessed a range of laws and policies adopted for the purpose of making it harder to vote—by imposing new restrictions on voter registration, eliminating polling locations, cutting back on early voting, and reducing voting hours. In Colorado, we are committed to a single principle—our democracy demands the inclusion of everyone as a participant in our electoral process. That’s why our vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration are a national model and serve as crucial protections. That’s also why the legislature recently passed a law reinstating voting rights for citizens serving a sentence of parole as they resume their places within their communities.

I am proud of Colorado’s commitment to ensuring fair and open access to the ballot for all citizens. But if the history of the struggle for voting rights and black equality in America teaches us anything, it is that we cannot afford to be complacent. That’s why, as Attorney General, I am committed to defending Colorado’s voting access laws and protecting the hard-earned rights of all citizens to participate fully and equally in our democracy. Come this November, let’s make sure we all exercise our right to vote.

(State Rep. Tony Exum read this statement from Attorney General Phil Weiser at his fourth annual Black History Month Town Hall on Feb. 15, 2020 at Sand Creek Library in Colorado Springs.)