Guest opinion: Keep an eye on how Congress acts on voting rights

2014-06-25T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Keep an eye on how Congress acts on voting rightsBy JOHN LEWIS The Billings Gazette
June 25, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The right to vote is sacred. It is how we hold our leaders accountable and make sure our democracy is responsive to all citizens. Yet, today, powerful forces are intent on making voting more difficult instead of more accessible and it could hurt Montana families in Indian Country.

For more than 200 years, our nation has struggled to ensure all Americans can enjoy the freedoms outlined in the Declaration of Independence. From Gettysburg to Selma, brave men and women have shed blood to help make equal voting rights a reality.

We should be proud of the progress, but also aware that the voting rights struggle goes on, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Indian Country. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an important provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 designed to serve as a “check” on any new changes to voting procedures. The decision could result in a new wave of rules designed to make it more difficult for certain Americans to vote.

Threat to voting rights

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been less than 100 years since all Native Americans were granted citizenship. Even after 1924, most Native Americans were effectively prohibited from voting by a myriad of state and local Jim Crow laws, like the poll tax and residency requirements. It wasn’t until Voting Rights Act of 1965 that denying the right to vote on the basis of race or color was expressly prohibited. It also gave the Justice Department the tools to ensure that states with a history of discrimination obeyed the law.

This month, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin the process of fixing one of the greatest threats to voting rights in nearly a half century. As Montanans and Americans, we need to pay close attention to what Congress does because their actions – or inaction — could have a dramatic impact on nearly 60,000 of our family, friends and neighbors in Indian Country.

Reservation satellites

Today, Montana’s seven sovereign nations and the Little Shell Band of Chippewa still face challenges in exercising the right to vote. While it takes me about five minutes to walk to my polling place, many folks in Indian Country have had to travel 100 hard miles or more across tough terrain and sometimes in difficult weather just to cast their ballot. We should all be encouraged by a recent breakthrough that will place satellite polling stations on the Crow, Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne reservations. It was the right thing to do.

In the coming weeks, I encourage Montanans to watch closely what Congress does to protect voting rights. Ask candidates where they stand in fixing the Voting Rights Act. You can count on me to stand firm against any barriers designed to suppress voter turnout in Indian Country. If history and bitter experience has taught us anything, when the rights of one group of people are broken, the rights of all Americans are at risk.

John Lewis is the Democratic nominee for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat. Born in Billings, Lewis lives in Helena with his wife, Melissa, and their two young children.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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