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Despite progress, advocates and lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri say voting rights are under threat

LaRissa Lawrie
KMUW/File photo

Martin Luther King Jr. spent years before his assassination working to expand access to the ballot box. Today, advocates and lawmakers say they are fighting many of the same fights.

For the King family this year, a celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy isn’t likely to happen on the national holiday reserved for him.

Instead, members of King’s family plan to lead a march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., demanding action on federal voting rights legislation.

“My family is calling for ‘no celebration without legislation,’” Martin Luther King III tweeted on Thursday.

“We’re not urging Americans not to honor this day — we’re asking people to honor Dr. King through action to protect the right to vote,” he said in a statement to the Washington Post.

And while the nation pauses to commemorate the country’s most prominent civil rights leader, Democratic lawmakers in Washington, advocates in Kansas City, and historians said the erosion of voting rights King fought against in his time is still a major concern.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s campaign to push new voter protections through Congress appears dormant for now. Senate Democrats failed last week to secure the votes needed to overturn the filibuster and pass legislation without GOP support.

In a phone call with KCUR last week, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, recalled a recent conversation with King’s eldest son.

“He said, ‘Mom and Dad would both turn over in their graves if they saw what was going on now,’” Cleaver said. “I think we are in trouble right now unless something should happen quickly to reverse … efforts to stop Americans from voting.”

Those efforts, according to Cleaver and others, are happening across the country.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states enacted laws last year that make it harder for Americans to vote. The situation, they wrote, means a person’s access to the right to vote increasingly depends on the state in which they live.

In 2021 alone, Kansas legislators passed laws that limit who can send advanced voting ballot applications to voters, restrict assistance in returning a mail ballot, and impose stricter signature requirements for mail ballots.

In Missouri, where early voting is not permitted and absentee voters must provide a reason why they can’t vote in person, Anne Calvert worries about other ways legislators make it harder to participate in the democratic process.

“The General Assembly is considering legislation that will require way more signatures on (initiative) petitions in Missouri,” said Calvert, president of the Women’s League of Voters of Kansas City, Jackson, Clay, and Platte Counties, a local chapter of the national nonpartisan organization that focuses on educating and registering voters.

That legislation, sponsored by Missouri Rep. Mike Henderson, a Republican from Bonne Terre, would also raise the threshold for an initiative petition to be approved by voters from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority.

“Voting rights across the country are under threat right now,” Calvert said.

Who is impacted the most?

Those restrictions and others can seem sensible at first, but they often affect poor and minority populations disproportionately, according to Rebecca Miller Davis, a professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“You look at (literacy) tests, and you look at grandfather clauses, and poll taxes and … (they at one point sounded) like a really reasonable thing,” Davis said. Instead, those tactics were used throughout American history to deny people the right to vote.

The same is true, Davis said, for the voter ID laws currently on the books in Missouri and Kansas.

“So are we better than we were when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? Are we better than when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Yes, absolutely,” Davis said. “But to assume that progress is some kind of linear ascent … doesn't hold true.”

In a press release on Friday, Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt called the Democrats’ push for new voter protections a power grab.

“Democrats are trying to federalize our elections with a one-size-fits-all system that takes control away from state and local election officials.” Blunt wrote. “As a former election official myself for 20 years, I know that the diversity of our state-run election procedures is our system’s strength.”

In pushing for tighter voting restrictions, conservative policy makers at all levels of government have repeatedly, and falsely, claimed that elections in 2016, 2018 and 2020 were affected by illegal voting.

But, as noted by the Brennan Center for Justice, “extensive research reveals that fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.”

According to a database kept by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy group, there were 14 instances of election fraud in Kansas since 2005 — including an illegal vote cast in 2019 by former Republican Congressman Steve Watkins.

Missouri saw 19 cases of fraud during the same period.

Taking steps forward

For his part, the Rev. Vernon Howard Jr. is not surprised by the recent trend toward more restrictive voting rules. He said the rights of Black and brown people in America have been under assault since 1619, when an English privateer ship landed in what is now Virginia with 20-30 slaves onboard.

Howard is the president of the Kansas City branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957.
Howard traces the modern battle over voting rights to the election of the country’s first African American president, Barack Obama, and the 2013 invalidation of key parts of the Civil Rights Act.

“This was the lynchpin decision of the Supreme Court of the United of America, that opened up the floodgates to all of the laws that we see now being passed in Kansas, in Missouri, and all across this country,” Howard said.

To help the situation, Howard is advocating for things like automatic voter registration and expanded mail-in voting, but he holds no illusions about how hard it might be to accomplish them.

“What's going to need to happen is what has happened in history,” he said, “a swelling of grassroots organizers, people who have been passionate about the humanity of all Americans, to rise up and take radical, principled, direct action in advocacy for this issue.”

That includes but is not limited to civil disobedience, protest and what he calls "dramatization of the issue."

“We have to be honest with ourselves, that America has always resisted and opposed the presence of a multiracial democracy,” he said. “This is not just a Black issue, this is an American democracy issue.”

Luke X. Martin is an assistant producer for KCUR's Up To Date.