Local activists push for voting rights

While reflecting on the progress made in race relations as a result of movements led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., there's one piece of the civil rights movement that many activists feel shouldn't be ignored — the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Some now feel that the work done to bridge a gap in voters' rights has been lost with 21st-century legislative changes that eliminated a necessary formula to prevent racial discrimination in voting. 

"We have (fewer) voting rights than we did in 1965," said Crystal Charley, president of the Southern Burlington County chapter of the NAACP, adding that the progress made more than 50 years ago is now "going backwards."

Charley said she sees a frightening repetition of 1965 that ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act's creation, and it's going to take some work to restore what took decades to establish. 

The 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery played a significant role in the creation of the Voting Rights Act. The peaceful protest, led by King that attracted more than 2,000 people, was meant to increase the percentage of black voters in the South. Protesters faced violent resistance on the road, and were hit with tear gas and beaten, but successfully walked 50 miles side by side to the capital.

Although many experts say 2016 is a different world than 50 years ago, some see recent legislative decisions in voting rights as a step back in time.

Civil rights groups and community leaders are taking a closer look at a Supreme Court decision that, in 2013, ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional. The section outlines which states are required to have the federal government or the federal court approve changes to their voting legislation that could affect minorities.

Since the court ruled the section unconstitutional, states such as Texas and North Carolina have attempted to require citizens to present a valid, state-issued identification card to cast a ballot.

There is no pending legislation to ask New Jersey voters to present IDs at polling places. 

As a result of the court's decision, and to add to the long-standing goal to increase voter registration, activists and some politicians want to restore the key element to the federal act.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, is concerned with the "restrictive voting laws" in several states that are likely to take effect this year.

He said the pending Supreme Court decision on voting rights in North Carolina and Texas can potentially "retard all the progress we have made as a country towards providing voting access to all Americans."

"All of us concerned with the fundamental tenets of democracy should pay close attention to these decisions and speak strongly in a unified voice if they deny the ability for our fellow Americans to freely vote," Singleton said.

Charley agreed that a lack of knowledge when important changes are made to legislation is what's plaguing the younger generation and has no racial boundaries.  

"Lack of awareness can be significantly damaging," she said, adding that most are unaware of how the Supreme Court's decision can affect their rights. 

Education and involvement are key, Charley said, and one of the main goals of the local NAACP is to take a stand to support legislation created to help "restore the Voting Rights Act while educating our local community."

However, hosting community meetings to help people understand government, legislation and politics as well as increase voter registration is not enough.

"We want them to understand why their vote is so important," she said.

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