Thousands of people are demonstrating in the United States capital and in several cities across the country to demand voting rights protection amid a barrage of state-level legislation that would impose ballot restrictions.
Held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic 1963 March on Washington, organisers of the “March On For Voting Rights” rally say the efforts to curb voting access disproportionately affect people of colour.
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In Washington, DC protesters holding “Black Lives Matter” flags and signs calling for federal legislation marched from McPherson Square towards the final meeting point at the National Mall, where King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech 58 years ago.
Other marches were planned in Phoenix, Miami, Atlanta, and dozens of other US cities.
“We will make history on Saturday” by picking up “the torch for justice my father and so many others carried”, said Martin Luther King III, the civil rights leader’s son, who was one of several speakers at the demonstration in Washington, DC.
“I just feel like we just kind of went backwards,” Rikkea Harris, a 25-year-old student who travelled from Colorado with her father, Rickey Harris, to take part in the rally, told the AFP news agency.
Americans should “do their part in trying to knock down all these voting suppression laws that they’re putting in across the country”, added her father, 65.
‘Attempt to suppress’
US President Joe Biden has spoken out against the recent push in Republican-controlled states to pass legislation that would restrict voting access in July, calling it “an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote, and fair and free elections”.
The laws range from a requirement to have a fixed address to register to vote to a ban on the drive-through voting that was popular in some states last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But at the federal level, Biden has promised to defend voting access.
The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives passed legislation on Tuesday that would restore sections of historic voting legislation that allowed legal challenges to state voting laws. The Voting Rights Act also required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal preclearance before changing laws.
But Republicans in the Senate have promised to block voting rights legislation. Democrats do not have enough votes in that chamber of Congress to overcome a filibuster rule that requires some GOP support for passage.
Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds, reporting from the rally in Washington, DC, said Republicans in the Senate have said they would use the filibuster to defeat the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was passed in the House this week.
Reynolds said many demonstrators on Saturday said if the filibuster is used to block that bill – named after longtime US Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who passed away last year – “then it’s time to do away with the filibuster, as well”.
“I think this has given us a sense of urgency,” Reverend Al Sharpton told The Associated Press news agency earlier this week about the legislative fight.
“The Senate is now the battleground,” Sharpton said. “And clearly the timing of this couldn’t be better. Everything that we’re concerned about – whether it’s health care, whether it’s student loans, whether it’s educational equality, whether it’s economic relief – none of it can happen if our votes are lessened.”
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which tracks voting rights curbs across the US, says between January 1 and July 14 this year, at least 18 states enacted 30 laws that restrict voting access.
“This wave of restrictions on voting – the most aggressive we have seen in more than a decade of tracking state voting laws – is in large part motivated by false and often racist allegations about voter fraud,” the think-tank says on its website.
For months ahead of the last US presidential election, and for weeks after Biden won, ex-President Donald Trump made false claims that the vote was marred by widespread voter fraud. Those claims were picked up by many of Trump’s supporters, including some Republican legislators.
On their website, March On For Voting Rights organisers say restrictive state voting measures, including a ban on mail-in voting and drop boxes and reduced early voting days and hours, “suppress voting methods that enrich our democracy and lead to high turnout”.
“Racist, anti-democratic voter suppression laws amount to rigging the game. But in America, elections are not a game – and lives depend on their outcomes,” they say.