Voting Rights Act at 45: Why we still need it

OPINION - For 45 years, the Voting Rights Act has occupied a central place in our democracy and we can ill-afford to turn our back on it now...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Unprecedented levels of grassroots funding, increasing frustration with ongoing struggles in the Gulf region, an economy teetering on the verge of collapse, and an electorate eager for dramatic political change are all factors often credited by commentators seeking to explain Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election win. But, one of the most significant factors, too often overlooked, is the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Act, signed into law 45 years ago today by President Lyndon B. Johnson, helped create the conditions necessary to bring about Obama’s historic win. By helping to level the political playing field and providing a means to deal with ongoing voting discrimination, the Voting Rights Act has helped tear down barriers to minority voter participation that would have otherwise rendered the November 2008 election all but an impossibility.

The success of the Voting Rights Act over the last 45 years, however, by no means suggests that its time to turn our back on it. Stories about the Act’s success and the progress that has been achieved stand right alongside evidence of ongoing problems and threats to equal political participation. If anything, greater vigilance is required to deal with the persisting threats and new barriers that continue to rear their ugly head at a time that some have prematurely rushed to describe as a post-racial era.

States such as Georgia and Indiana have adopted mandatory, photo id requirements for voters despite evidence that many minority, poor and elderly voters lack such identification. Proponents of these laws disingenuously claim they’re necessary to deal with fraud despite the absence of evidence suggesting as much. Other states such as Arizona, unsurprisingly, have sought to put in place proof of citizenship requirements subjecting certain eligible voters to onerous and burdensome requirements that must be satisfied before these voters are added to or maintained on registration rolls.

Caging schemes continue to surface in many places with officials in Michigan and Indiana, for example, recently threatening to use foreclosure lists as a means of challenging voter eligibility inside the polls on Election Day. And, flyers distributing misinformation about the election continue to surface as one of many dirty practices used to help keep minority voters away from the polling place. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, a fake letter purporting to be from the local NAACP threatened that voters with outstanding parking tickets or late child support payments would be subject to arrest on Election Day. And, in Wisconsin, a leaflet distributed by the fictitious Milwaukee Black Voters League was selectively distributed in majority black precincts instructing voters that if they voted in any election that year, then they were ineligible to vote in the presidential election and would face 10 years in prison if they attempted to do so. This list is by no means exhaustive but illustrates the real barriers and hurdles that deny and frustrate minority voters’ access to the polls today.

It is perhaps because of the success of the Voting Rights Act that the law has a target on its back. In just the last 3 months, 3 lawsuits have been filed challenging the constitutionality of a core provision of the Act — the Section 5 pre-clearance provision. Section 5 requires that a select number of states with long and egregious histories of discrimination submit their voting changes for federal review before they are put into effect.

Over the years, hundreds of discriminatory voting changes have been blocked by Section 5, including attempts to cancel elections in the face of growing minority voting strength, efforts to draw black candidates out of their districts, discriminatory redistricting plans and other naked attempts to turn the clock back on the progress that has been made. Section 5, widely regarded as the heart of the Act, is the central issue in all 3 of these suits. But civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others, are poised to defend the Act to ensure that its strong provisions remain in place.

In a 2006 speech before Congress expressing support for renewal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, President Obama aptly observed that progress has been made but noted the importance of remaining focused on preventing the problems we have seen in recent elections from happening again. Obama noted that ”[w]e have seen political operatives purge voters from registration rolls for no legitimate reason, prevent eligible ex-felons from casting ballots, distribute polling equipment unevenly and deceive voters about the time, location, and rules of elections.” Indeed, many of these efforts are directed at historically disenfranchised groups. These groups must remain at the core of any future effort to remedy and address the long-standing barriers to full and equal political participation.

The 45th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act provides a moment to reflect on the long road that has been traveled and the great work that lies ahead. With redistricting commencing throughout the country next year, the Act will certainly play a key role in ensuring that federal, state and local boundaries are drawn in ways that do not disadvantage minority voters while help underscoring the importance of recognizing our country’s increasing levels of diversity.

The mid-term elections this fall are likely to bring about a new round of voter suppression schemes and dirty tricks but the Act remains one of the most powerful tool in the arsenal of advocates and lawyers committed to making the right to vote something meaningful. For 45 years, the Voting Rights Act has occupied a central place in our democracy and we can ill-afford to turn our back on it now.