In America, we have no official religion, but there is nonetheless a civic faith. Because we are organized around ideals of liberty and justice for all, not geography, culture, or religion like other countries, keeping our civic faith means serving those ideals. Voting is how we keep that faith. We choose who will govern us because freedom means nothing without having a say in who makes the rules. Voting is sacred.
The Founding Fathers were geniuses, but they did not get voting right. They left out most Americans, and over the decades we have kept our civic faith by making sure every citizen can vote. We kept the faith when we extended the vote to white men who were not wealthy landowners in 1856; to formerly enslaved people after the Civil War; to newly naturalized citizens in 1868; to women in 1920; to young people old enough to serve in the military in 1971. We keep the faith when we remember the connection between the right to vote and freedom itself.
In his famous 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. discussed the “sacred right” to vote and the power it holds to elect leaders, protect freedoms, and shape public policy.
“Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights,” King proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Less than eight years later, after the disgrace of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., was broadcast across the nation, King, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and a host of other religious and civic leaders led a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, culminating with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Thousands of ordinary citizens, of both political parties or no political party at all, joined them to remind the powerful in Washington, once again, that the right to vote is sacred because it secures our freedom.
We have come to such a moment again.
Undercutting the right to vote has been a strategy of Republicans for decades. Hyper-partisan gerrymandering so candidates pick their voters, weakening limits on money in politics, purging registration lists of eligible voters, moving polling places or limiting voting hours, denying the vote to former felons even after they have served their time (and in the case of Florida, even after Floridians voted to end that practice), gutting the Voting Rights Act — all of it and more has been core to Republican pathways to power. When you add it up, it’s as if the GOP has decided it can’t win a fair fight.
The Big Lie is the latest tactic. Fueled by disinformation online and in media, despite zero evidence of widespread voter fraud and multiple recounts, many Republicans, including in Congress, spread the false narrative that President Biden did not win the last election fair and square. Relying on these lies, Republican state lawmakers around the country have introduced more than 440 bills and rammed through 34 laws in 19 states to make it harder to register, stay registered, and cast a ballot. Many of them authorize Republican partisans to overrule an election outcome they don’t like.
Congress has a chance to right these wrongs. The Freedom to Vote Act would allow for same-day registration and automatic voter registration when a citizen turns 18. It would make voting more convenient, whether by mail or early, for those who cannot get to the polls during normal hours. It would restore voting rights to individuals who have been incarcerated and served their time, prevent partisan gerrymandering, and protect against voter intimidation.
That is all good, for all of us — for elderly people, people with disabilities, working people without convenient transportation or flexible schedules, busy moms and dads juggling jobs, kids, and other cares with no time for long lines at polling places. All of us. Making it easy to vote and to have that vote count is about giving everybody a chance to participate in their own civic destiny. That was a radical idea in the 1770s when the Founders came up with it. But it was the right way and the only way to make freedom possible. It still is.
Whether the right to vote remains sacred depends now on members of the US Senate. The people have expressed their support. The House of Representatives, along partisan lines, has voted its approval. Now democracy waits.
I hope senators, whatever their party, remember that the right to vote is the pathway to freedom itself. I hope that, when it comes time to debate the bill, they stop hiding behind the filibuster or other barriers of their own making. I hope when they consider its merits, they realize that the proposed legislation before them is not just the result of efforts to refine and compromise many different proposals, but also the efforts, struggles, and sacrifices that Americans have endured for centuries to treat the vote as sacred — and freedom as possible. And I hope they hurry. Because democracy is waiting.
As Dr. King said so eloquently 65 years ago: “The hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now, before it is too late.”
Deval Patrick is the former two-term governor of Massachusetts and former head of the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. He is currently cochair of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic-leaning political action committee.