Voting rights are a cornerstone of democracy

The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits racial discrimination in voting. (© AP Images)

The civil rights movement may be an American story, but it continues to inspire democracy around the world.

“We may be diplomats, but we should seize the spirit of this people’s movement to reinvigorate our work to defend human rights and dignity around the world,” U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power said in New York February 25.

Speaking at a panel to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 at the United Nations, Power said democracy suffers when people are denied the right to vote.

“The entire democratic system is diminished when citizens cannot exercise their right to vote,” Power said.

In 1865 after the Civil War, lawmakers amended the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery and to extend the right to vote to all citizens, regardless of race. Despite that national law, some states and local jurisdictions created legal hurdles to make it difficult for African Americans to cast their ballots.

“Many Americans in the 1960s realized this,” Power said, referring to the civil rights movement. “They lamented the unfilled promise of equality under the U.S. Constitution and, when change finally came, it was because of the people who demanded it.”

The Voting Rights Act enforces the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It specifically outlaws the barriers previously imposed by some states to stop African Americans from voting. Within five years of the Voting Rights Act, the percentage of African Americans registered to vote jumped from 6 percent to 60 percent.

In keeping with the spirit of the civil rights movement, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the State Department supports democracy programs around the world, including election monitoring and parliamentary development.