When Martin’s story gets a platform tomorrow in Melrose, it could sound to some like a tale from a distant place and time with little bearing on present-day conditions. But observers say the battle for voting rights is far from finished, even here in Massachusetts.
For example, allegations of Hispanic voter disenfranchisement have plagued Springfield in recent years, according to Mark Brodin, a former civil rights attorney who is now a professor at Boston College Law School in Newton. And in 2004, a federal court ruled that redistricting under then House Speaker Thomas Finneran had violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by discriminating against black voters.
Brodin added that 19 states have tried, albeit without much success, to pass voter identification laws that Brodin argues would unfairly burden minorities and low-income citizens who don’t have driver’s licenses.
“These were issues that we thought we put to rest decades ago, through tremendous sacrifice on the part of people” who were directly involved, Brodin said. “There is a compelling need to remind people of the history.”
Nor is the question of federal oversight of voting registration settled.
In 2006, Congress re-authorized a key provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring certain states and localities with histories of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. But a case currently before the US Supreme Court challenges that provision. The court is expected to issue a ruling by June.
The possibility the provision could be struck down has local scholars such as Robert McAndrews of Salem State University concerned that gains made since the 1960s could still be undone.
“These problems [of voter disenfranchisement] are not solved,” said McAndrews, a human rights attorney and professor of social work. “The cases still being brought forward in our courts show these problems are still very much alive. We have not resolved this, and I don’t think we ever really will.”
Martin shares concerns that voting rights face ongoing threats amid voter identification initiatives, some of which have become law, including one in Indiana.
“This is a real made-up problem designed to scare off people from voting,” Martin said.
Since threats persist, Martin said, Americans must still be vigilant to defend their rights under the Constitution’s 15th amendment, adopted after the Civil War in 1870.
It grants all citizens the right to vote regardless of color or race and empowers Congress to enforce the article via appropriate legislation. But as history shows, rights mean little if citizens don’t actively claim them.
“The 15th Amendment just sat there for almost a century without being enforced,” Martin said. “There is a responsibility to deal with injustice.”