Our Quote of the Week is in celebration of the 58th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965.
Sargent Shriver's 1970 Address at the Polish American Congress Convention is both specific in its inclusion of references to Polish culture, and universal in its declaration of the importance of citizens' right to vote. In the speech, Shriver outlines what he sees as the reasons for disillusionment during this era: the exorbitant expense of the war in Vietnam ("5 billion dollars a state. For every state in the country, we have spent 5 billion dollars in Vietnam. A total of over 200 billion dollars"); the drastic cutbacks that had been made to the War on Poverty programs, which put the poorest Americans at risk; the lack of leadership in government; and ongoing political polarization. He expresses a sentiment that continues to resonate today:
"I want to feel that we’re moving. Moving toward liberty and democracy and in progressive ways. I can’t stand the apathy that I’ve noticed [...] I can’t stand the officials who go around giving speeches calling their fellow Americans ugly names, spreading divisiveness, and rage."
Shriver's solution to the apathy and divisiveness of the era includes, among other things:
- mandatory national service
- jobs for young people
- the protection of voting rights
This last point is an important one for Shriver. He brings up the example of France, where he had lived during his tenure as US Ambassador to that country. He points out that elections are held on Sunday in France and in other Western European countries, making it easier for more citizens to vote--and where the percentage of citizens who vote is drastically higher than that of the United States. In this context, he emphasizes that the government should enact automatic voter registration.
Today, we are far from realizing Sargent Shriver's vision of a country that empowers its citizens to vote. In the past 10 years, we've seen Supreme Court decisions that have limited citizens' voting rights, including Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned a part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Several states have used tactics that limit voters' ability to exercise their rights: by enforcing unrealistic voter ID rules which, among other things, limit the types of identification that are accepted; and by limiting the number of polling places and ballot drop boxes. To add insult to injury, states like Georgia, which has employed such tactics, has also outlawed the distribution of water and snacks in voting lines, which have grown longer and longer due to the other restrictions mentioned.
Our most recent example of how easily our voting rights can be disregarded can be found in former President Donald Trump's recent indictment for his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The indictment reminds us that election denial is itself a large-scale effort to disregard citizens' voting rights. Specifically, the fourth count in the former President's indictment, "Conspiracy against Rights," is a long-standing statute that has been used to prosecute the most pernicious instances of voter suppression, by members of the Ku Klux Klan and others who prevented Black citizens from voting.
Sargent Shriver's words speak to a fundamental principle: that protecting the voting rights of all citizens is essential if we are to preserve a dynamic, democratic society.