44 years after landmark act, voting rights still needed

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Watch Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders witness President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. See more archival videos about black history at iCue.com>

Today marks the 44th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act. It was passed to reverse Jim Crow laws, which effectively denied African Americans the right to vote for decades.

The Act has accomplished great things. It eliminated poll taxes, literacy tests and other ballot box barriers. Within a few years of its passage, voter registration rates among African Americans doubled, tripled and in some states quadrupled.

Fast forward to the 2008 presidential election and its surge of African-American voter participation. Although the protections of the Act remain vital, according to one recent report, African-American women voters turned out at higher rates in November than any other racial, ethnic or gender group.

But one Jim Crow relic continues to elude the strong arms of the Voting Rights Act. Nationwide, 5.3 million American citizens are denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction in their past. Four million are people who are out of prison, living in the community. Criminal disenfranchisement laws differ state-to-state. All told, 35 states continue to disenfranchise people released from prison.

Let’s be clear, these laws were put in place right alongside poll taxes and literacy tests. In the late 1800s, as part of larger backlash against the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, criminal disenfranchisement laws spread throughout the country. At the same time, states expanded their criminal codes to punish offenses that they believed freed slaves were most likely to commit, including vagrancy, petty larceny and bigamy. This targeted criminalization and criminal disenfranchisement combined to produce the legal loss of voting rights, which effectively suppressed the power of African Americans for decades.

The laws’ intended effects continue to this day. Nationwide, 13 percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. In eight states, more than 15 percent of African Americans cannot vote, and three of those states disenfranchise more than 20 percent of the African-American voting-age population. Given current rates of incarceration, 3 in 10 of the next generation of African-American men will lose the right to vote at some point in their lifetime.

Despite the clear evidence of discriminatory intent and impact, courts continue to uphold these laws, finding that Congress did not intend to prohibit criminal disenfranchisement when it passed the Voting Rights Act. Last week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals was the latest to issue such a ruling.

Luckily, we have three branches of government, and Congress now has the opportunity to declare loud and clear that it is time to consign these laws to the Jim Crow past. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI) have introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill that seeks to restore voting rights in federal elections to all Americans who are out of prison, living in the community. The Democracy Restoration Act is the Voting Rights Act of the 21st Century. Congress should move quickly to end voting discrimination once and for all.