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Panelists including a U.S. congressman and Kennedy School of Government professor discussed what they saw as recent restrictions to voter rights at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum event Wednesday night, 50 years after the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law.
The panel—which featured Congressman Robert C. Scott and Penda D. Hair, co-founder and co-director of a civil rights organization called the Advancement Project—was moderated by Kennedy School professor Alexander Keyssar.
Sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Kennedy School Ash Center, the event, called “50 Years after the Voting Rights Act: Strategies for Moving Forward,” drew about 75 audience members to a discussion that was largely critical of recent developments in voting legislation.
The speakers argued that the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder—which struck down the coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—and congressional opposition to the Voting Rights Amendment Act has allowed states to pass more discriminatory legislation.
Keyssar cited these recent obstacles as evidence of a recent relapse in voting rights progress. “The history of enfranchisement in the United States is not a history of continuous expansion, it’s a history of expansions followed by counter-effects,” Keyssar said during the panel.
When asked by Keyssar about Republican reluctance to support the Voting Rights Amendment Act, Scott expressed his own disbelief and frustration with his peers, especially given the nature of the bill.
“The bill is so modest,” he said, “you almost feel embarrassed fighting for it.”
Hair, for her part, expressed hope for a constitutional amendment that would establish voting as an explicit right. Such a provision could allow for uniform voting laws across states as well as “higher judicial scrutiny” of voting laws, Hair said.
When asked by Sarah S. Fellman ’18 what individuals can do to advocate for voting rights, both Hair and Scott had words of encouragement and advice.
Hair emphasized that despite the recent developments, encouraging voters to elect officials who are supportive of voting rights is just as important as ever. “Take people to the DMV, take people to vote… and fight,” she said.
“With the whole speed bumps against progress, all we can do is work hard,” Scott said.
Olivia M. Castor ’17 said she appreciated the panelists’ viewpoints.
“With a place like the IOP, we often can get caught up in a lot of the bigger, fancier issues like abortion, gerrymandering, and we forget about the importance of basic things,” Castor said. “Voting is basically the foundation of everything else that is happening in our government.”
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