Martin Luther King Jr.’s heirs in family and advocacy want this year’s namesake holiday to be more than a remembrance of bygone struggle. In the midst of a far-ranging assault on American democracy, this is the time to listen to Martin Luther King III and his siblings and agitate, not celebrate, to improve access to the ballot box.
Washington is long a national leader in ballot access, but this state does not stand alone. An obstruction to voting in Arizona or Alabama, or a clampdown on mail balloting in Ohio, affects federal elections that impact the entire country. It isn’t enough to be able to register freely, vote from home and enjoy confidence in fair election practices in Washington. These need to be national rights.
Congress has the chance to empower every American with equal voting access via legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate. No procedural rule or custom, including the filibuster, should block the reforms from bolstering American democracy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Bill and the Freedom to Vote Act would be important advances for American elections, and they deserve vigorous support. They would replace the mishmash of state statutes about ballot access, now targeted by opportunistic legislatures to tilt elections for partisan gain. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found that in 2021 alone, 19 states passed 34 laws restricting elections access. Federal laws are needed to nullify such anti-democratic acts.
The proposed federal laws would spread early voting, vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration nationwide, and restore Justice Department oversight over voting rules to prevent discrimination where it has previously been found. It is a sad commentary on the state of politics that the package passed the U.S. House of Representatives in a party-line vote Thursday. Opposition came from all Republican members including Washington’s Dan Newhouse, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers — whose constituents all enjoy the voting access they voted to deny elsewhere.
The proposal’s outlook in the Senate is in doubt, despite righteous backing from Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Democrats. A generation ago, supporters of the MLK Jr. holiday faced a gauntlet getting it through the same deliberative body, replete with a filibuster in October 1983. Reason prevailed. Today, remembrances of King’s legacy should be tuned directly into this hot political moment.
Access to elections inspired King’s celebrated march through Alabama, from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery. Before the march set off into the “Bloody Sunday” attacks on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, only about 2% of that city’s eligible Black voters were registered to vote. King’s fearless advocacy to change that injustice and open American democracy to every citizen resonates decades after his soul-stirring Montgomery speech on voter rights.
All Americans deserve the equitable, open and fearless democracy King advocated. Federal protection for this inalienable right should happen now.