#Selma50: Voter education, suppression and obligation

Before I was a union leader, I was a high school social studies teacher. As my students—juniors and seniors—nched closer and closer to voter registration age, I worked hard not only to help them learn the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed, but also to understand the importance of voting and its essential role in our democracy.

In 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. linked arms with Rep. John Lewis and the other civil rights activists and foot soldiers that were part of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, they knew that the right to vote was essential to democracy, and that exercising that right was key to freedom, justice and opportunity. Voting is how we speak up for what our families and communities want and need. Voting is how we reclaim the American dream, strengthen the middle class and ward off totalitarianism and bigotry. The test of a robust democracy is the engaged participation of all its citizens.

That's what I tried to teach my students.

There's an important lesson woven into Bloody Sunday. The nonviolent activists who took to the Edmund Pettus Bridge showed what it means to speak out—even at great risk—against injustice. The blood shed on that day was a turning point in the struggle for racial justice and the fight for democracy. While it is a powerful reminder that power never yields willingly, those brave men and women made it yield. Those who bore witness throughout this nation, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, could no longer close their eyes to the billy clubs, horses and tear gas used to deny rights. As a result, millions of Americans were afforded the right to vote. Our nation was one step closer to achieving real justice and equality.

The legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights movement belongs to every American. It is a major part of our history, and it is knitted into the fabric of our country. When more voices are raised, our society becomes more tolerant, more pluralistic, more fair. But when voices are silenced, we see our schools and society eroded—and with it, the diminishment of opportunity.

Today, there are those who are all too eager to silence voices—and we know whose voices they want to silence. Their willingness to push laws that disenfranchise millions of Americans is an affront to all we hold dear. Their attacks on the rights of voters are chipping away at the core of our democracy, trying to turn back the clock of progress. But let me be clear: When the right to vote is trampled upon, our democracy is weakened. When voices are silenced, opportunity is denied.

Without our voices at the polls, the same politicians who want to suppress our votes pass laws that harm our families. They close neighborhood schools instead of working to support them. They narrow the curriculum so that our kids won't even learn the history of why we needed the Voting Rights Act in the first place. They slash healthcare access and public services for our communities. They close the pathways to higher education. And they choke off our voices in the workplace and make it next to impossible to bargain collectively.

Now is the time for us to speak out, join together and reclaim the promise of America. That starts by educating our students about the impact of the civil rights movement, acting collectively to achieve a renewal of the Voting Rights Act and redoubling our efforts to ensure all children grow up in safe communities with high-quality neighborhood public schools. That starts by voting, not just for presidents but also for municipal representatives and school board members.

In the recent midterm election, only 36 percent of eligible voters came out to vote. During presidential elections, little more than 50 percent do. Some have suggested we make Election Day a national holiday. Others have fought to expand access to early voting. We can push the envelope even further. Instead of a country that allows voter suppression, let's be a country that requires mandatory voting.

More than 20 countries around the world mandate voting. I had the opportunity to visit Australia last year, where citizens either vote or pay a small fine. Voter turnout there is nearly universal. In Canada, registrars go door to door registering citizens to vote, like we do with the census. In elections there, about 70 percent of voters regularly go to the polls.

Mandatory voting would ensure that all voices were heard, that fewer could be shut out. It would broaden the pool of voters and limit the concentration of power that is now enjoyed by certain wealthy and corporate interests of our society. It would help build a sense of duty and responsibility in our citizenry. And it would be healthy for our democracy.

Benjamin Franklin famously remarked, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." We can make voting just as certain.

As I join thousands in marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, my heart is with my former students as well as the students of today and tomorrow. Like those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who would not stand idly by when they were silenced, this generation cannot be bystanders either. I hope they know that their dreams are our dreams, that their voices are critical to strengthening our democracy.

Let's talk about not just how we stop voter suppression but how we engender a real responsibility to vote. Let's make voting not simply a right but a ritual of our democracy. Only then will we ensure that we are marching directly and without barrier or challenge to the voting booth.