U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

January 13, 2024

Give Us the Ballot

This Monday, January 15, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national federal holiday. More than a day off from work or school, to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King, this day is recognized as a day of service.

Many Americans use this day to volunteer in their community and support those who are most vulnerable or in need of support. These are worthy activities for this holiday and year-round. I would ask you to add one item to your list: a constant truth across my many decades of public service has been that one of the most meaningful acts of service that anyone can do for their community and country is to vote.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made voting access and voting rights central in his unrelenting fight for civil rights. Although the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 guaranteed Black Americans the right to vote, states with Black majorities still would enact Jim Crow laws designed to systematically prevent Black people from voting with literacy tests, strict voter ID laws and other methods of voter suppression. Poll taxes remained on the books in many states until prohibited by the 24th Amendment in 1964. Dr. King understood that elections have consequences for better and worse; democracy and freedom can be lost at the ballot box, as much as they can be strengthened and expanded.

In his 1957 “Give Us the Ballot,” speech Dr. King outlined the disenfranchisement Black voters were facing and emphasized the gravity and impact of voting saying, “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself.” 

Among his various demonstrations, Dr. King crossed Alabama’s Edmund Pettis Bridge leading the historic March from Selma to Montgomery to register hundreds of Black Americans to vote. The violent beatings of the peaceful marchers by police on “Bloody Sunday” had such a profound impact that it resulted in the passage of one of the most consequential pieces of voting rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act protected Black voters from disenfranchisement by removing barriers to voting and ensuring Black Americans had equal access to the ballot box. Regretfully, without stop since its passage, there has been unrelenting assault on securing voting rights and a recent, modern push to drastically weaken key provisions of the law.

In the 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision, the United States Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and, as a result, states were allowed to implement new restrictive voting laws. This landmark decision has had a ripple effect. For over a decade, states have been passing more and more restrictive laws to designed to make it harder, not easier, to vote and exercise this sacred franchise and constitutional right.

States like Texas, Georgia and Florida are doing all they can to see how difficult they can make voting in their state. They are weaponizing the redistricting processes to suppress Black voters, making it harder to take legal action against voting infringement and enacting strict voter ID laws to restrict voting rights.

Many states bar Americans from voting ever again due to past criminal convictions, and I have introduced federal legislation to correct this injustice. Congress also should take up and pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These complementary bills protect the right to vote through the creation of national standards and best practices to make it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot.  These measures would also strengthen election security, improve our redistricting process, and repair the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by recent Supreme Court decisions.

Dr. King’s primary objective was to expand voting rights for minority populations . The current assault on voting rights works to restrict access and is directed against any population that disagrees with or speaks out against those who want to suppress voter participation and voting access.

Voting is a fundamental part of our democratic elections, and the lawmakers we vote for make decisions that can have a generational impact. Dr. King knew the power of his vote and used it as a reflection of his values – fairness, justice and equity for all Americans.

As we remember Dr. King’s incredible contributions in service to our country and prepare for the upcoming elections, I hope that all Marylanders will make a commitment to serve their community and country in May and again in November by casting their ballot and using their vote to strengthen our democracy and stand up for our values and civil rights.

Please check the Maryland Board of Elections website to register to vote or make sure your voter registration information is correct, and to track your ballot for those using mail-in ballots.

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this topic or any other.

In solidarity,

Ben Cardin