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Editorial: On King's birthday, voting rights remain under assault

Today is the day the nation celebrates the birth of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who is regarded as the leader of the Civil Rights movement.

Yet, were he alive, he might be at a loss as to why some key initiatives for which he and his contemporaries had marched and even died are still being debated. Both black and white supporters fought for change, placing their lives in harm’s way. King, himself, ultimately paid the highest price for his advocacy.

For example: Voting rights are still under attack. They were severely weakened in an infamous 2013 Supreme Court decision that allowed several states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

The Supreme Court is currently torn over whether to allow Ohio to purge people from the voting rolls if they skip a few elections and fail to respond to a notice from state officials. Justice Sonia Sotomayor made a convincing argument about disenfranchising minorities and the homeless, not to mention being part of a broader effort to effectively suppress voting.

Voting in a free nation should be easy and inclusive. African Americans tend to dominate in early, in-person voting, as a Nov. 1, 2016 Politico article reported, yet there have been efforts, largely by the Republican Party, to prevent early voting. New York is among those states without early voting, though Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s advocated it in this month’s State of the State speech.

For evidence of the power of the African American vote, look no further than Alabama’s recent controversial Senate election in which onetime Republican favorite Roy S. Moore was defeated. The outcome turned on an unusually high number of black voters who showed up at a higher rate than their white counterparts. In the face of increasing voter restrictions and during an election that at one point seemed a slam-dunk for Moore – until his controversial past came to light – black voters held the key.

Political pundits and analysts accurately touted what happened in Alabama as an example of the increasing power of the minority vote. It showed African Americans and the country that those voters are not a force to be ignored.

In a bit of historical irony, Alabama was the battleground for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and designed to overcome barriers by state and local authorities to keep African Americans from voting. Black Alabamans made their voices heard, despite any obstacles. King would have been proud.

But he would have realized another familiar battle in gerrymandering. Just last week, federal judges ruled that the congressional district map drawn by Republicans in North Carolina was unfair.
In an unprecedented ruling, the court said the map was illegally gerrymandered to give Republicans an outsized election advantage. It marked the second time in this decade that the state’s congressional boundaries ran afoul of a judge’s panel. In 2016, another panel rejected two majority black congressional districts drawn in 2011. Those judges saw no justification in using race as the “predominant factor.”

These would be sad but familiar scenes to King who once said, “Voting is the foundation stone for political action,” and continued “The basic elements so vital to Negro advancement can only be achieved by seeking redress from government at local, state and federal levels. To do this the vote is essential.”

It still is. The fight continues.

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