Celebration marks 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act

Credit: Photo by Cody Nelson

Minneapolis City Hall was filled with the sounds of soaring choral music and speeches on political participation on Tuesday as local officials celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  

Speakers both lauded advancements in voting accessibility while discussing modern shortcomings in how the public engages with its government since the act was passed in 1965, aiming to give voting rights to African Americans in all 50 states.

“Has this legislation worked? Yes and no,” said Don Fraser, the former Minnesota Congressman and Minneapolis mayor.

City Council Member Jacob Frey (Ward 3) emceed the event, which also served as the unveiling of a Hennepin History Museum exhibit on the history of elections. The exhibit will be displayed in City Hall through December, showcasing photos and other artifacts from the Minneapolis government and the county museum.

Much of the event’s tone was upbeat and outlined ways in which Minnesota has been a national leader in voter turnout and easing the registration process.

“To see our country come so far from when people were actively excluded from the process is amazing. Minnesota has led the way in voter participation and voter registration,” state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said in a statement after attending Tuesday’s event. “We still need to remain vigilant against attempts to roll back voting rights.”

In his speech, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon noted how it used to be a tradition for politicians to rally voters to go out and register themselves every October or so. But since Minnesota introduced no-excuse absentee balloting last year, any voter can both register and cast their ballot via mail.

“Now we don’t even have to get people off the couch anymore. Now all we have to do is tell them they can stay on the couch,” Simon said. 

Still, Simon was quick to note barriers — like transportation issues, language barriers and difficulty understanding the complex process — that prevent otherwise-eligible voters from casting a ballot.

One proposed reform currently floating around the Minneapolis City Council would require renters to give voter registration information to their new tenants. Frey, who chairs the council’s Elections and Rules Committee, is sponsoring the ordinance, which he said would be helpful to the about half of Minneapolis residents who are renters. 

“There is a lot more that we can and should be doing [to reform the process],” Simon said.

Many speeches noted Minnesota’s place as one of the most progressive states when it comes to elections, noting its early adoption of same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee balloting. 

And given the state’s spirit of progressive voting laws — the failed voter ID constitutional amendment of 2012 notwithstanding — the speakers said Minnesota must continue being a leader in election reform.

“We stand here in City Hall and should be ashamed of the voting participation at the local level,” Fraser said. “In some elections only 12 to 15 percent of eligible voters turn out to vote. That’s disgraceful. I sometimes wonder if those who demonstrate on the streets vote.”

Robin Doublette, a member of the choir whose performances book-ended the event, said she was “shocked” at the voter turnout statistics Fraser gave. 

She said her north Minneapolis polling place is always packed on Election Day, so she didn’t realize that high turnout wasn’t the case elsewhere.

Fraser’s address was the most fiery of Tuesday’s speakers, but it included some concrete ideas to increase voter participation, including longer terms for members of Congress in attempts of having higher turnout and fewer elections. However, his address and those of others carried a theme of encouragement for people to become more involved with their government. 

“Governments are ours, but if we don’t support them why do we expect them to do what we want?” Fraser said. “Democracy is complex.”