Voting Rights Act Background
Two Fights to Defend the Voting Rights Act
Renew the Special Provisions
Beware of Tricksters Bearing Gifts
Enforce the Voting Rights Act
For More Information
Nothing is more fundamental to democracy than the right to vote. You cannot have a true democracy unless everyone has the right to vote, and those who don't have the right to vote are not full and equal members of the community. (Of course, achieving voting rights for all is just one element in building a true democracy, and the right to vote by itself does not guarantee that a real democracy exists.)
The fact that some people may voluntarily choose not to vote in a particular election does not diminish the importance of the right to vote, and there is an enormous difference between choosing not to vote, and being denied the right to vote.
In theory all American citizens have the right to vote, but in real life to actually have the right to vote requires more than simply being a citizen, it includes among other things:
Throughout history the rich, the powerful, and the privileged have tried to restrict voting rights to those most likely to support the status quo. And those who are not rich, powerful, or privileged have fought to win and retain the right to vote so as to have at least some influence over the laws and governments that rule them.
In America, this voting-rights struggle between the haves and have-nots began at the founding Constitutional Convention more than 200 years ago and it continues to this day. When the first national elections took place in 1792, only white, male, property owners had the right to vote. By some estimates, just 5% of the total adult population were eligible to vote. Women, slaves, Indians, indentured servants, apprentices, "foreigners," small-scale farmers, renters, and the homeless were all denied the right to vote. For more than 200 years we have fought to expand voting rights to all.
(See Voting Rights History Two Centuries of Struggle.)
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was a major milestone in that struggle, but the VRA did not end this historic fight to expand and defend voting rights:
In essence, when the VRA was enacted it accomplished three things:
In theory, the 15th Amendment passed in 1870 granted all male citizens the right to vote "regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." And in theory, the 19th Amendment passed in 1920 extended voting rights to women.
But each state has the power to set the rules and regulations that control voter registration, the voting process, and the district boundaries. Many states particularly in the South used that power to prevent non-whites from voting through poll taxes, "literacy tests," "voucher" requirements, and so forth. And with the tacit permission of state law enforcement, organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council (now called Council of Conservative Citizens) used terrorism and economic retaliation for the same purpose. Similar techniques were used against Latino voters in the Southwest, and Asian and Indian voters throughout the entire West. Until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Federal government did nothing to prevent this disenfranchisement of voters based on race.
Ending race-based denial of voting rights was a central aim of the Freedom Movement that grew in power and strength after World War II. The fight to eliminate this kind of discrimination was long and bloody. Many freedom fighters were killed for demanding the right to vote, hundreds were beaten and abused, thousands lost their jobs or homes, more thousands were arrested, and tens of thousands marched and protested in cities, towns, and villages across America. Eventually swelling to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, this movement forced the Federal government to pass and eventually enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1975, after more protests and movements, the VRA was expanded to address the voting rights of language minority groups, including Latinos, Asians, and Indians by requiring that ballots and other voting materials be made available in languages other than English where they were needed.
Now the Voting Rights Act is under attack in two ways:
Much of the VRA is permanent law, but some key sections have to be renewed every few years. If they are not renewed in 2006, they will expire in September of 2007. The provisions that need to be renewed fall into three groups:
Under Section 5, these states and counties must obtain permission for changing laws and regulations that might affect voting such as altering the location and hours of polling places, redrawing district lines, amending voter registration requirements and procedures, and so on. To obtain the Attorney General's permission, they need to prove the proposed change will not have a racially discriminatory effect.
Under these observer provisions the Justice Department has sent election monitors to numerous cities and counties in the South to ensure that Black voters were not discriminated against. In addition, observers have been sent to places such as Cicero IL, St. Louis MO, Reading PA, Los Angeles CA, New York City, Suffolk County NY, Hamtramck MI, Maple Heights OH, and Lawrence MA, to protect the voting rights of Asian, Native American, and Spanish-speaking voters.
At the present time, close to 400 jurisdictions in 20 states must provide language assistance to Spanish-speakers. Other jurisdictions must provide assistance and materials in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and more than a dozen Native American and Alaskan Native languages.
Some legislators and politicians who have never been known for supporting civil rights causes in the past are now posing themselves as champions of equality by demanding that the special provisions be made nation-wide (instead of limited to states and districts with histories of discrimination) and be made permanent (instead of having to be renewed every so often). This is a trick.
Making the special provisions nation-wide and permanent sounds good to those who don't know the details. But doing so would make the special provisions vulnerable to a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. Because the special provisions are "race conscious," they must be designed to redress specific instances of discrimination, otherwise the Supremes could rule that they violate the constitutional requirements that all races and language groups be treated equally. This danger is even greater now that Bush has packed the Supreme Court with right-wing conservatives.
Basic enforcement of the VRA rests with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Attorney General. Under Section 5, they are the ones charged with reviewing voting-related changes before they go into effect to ensure that they do not discriminate on the basis of race.
But under the Bush administration, the Attorney General has refused to block blatantly discriminatory changes if the change would benefit the Republican Party. Even in cases where the Justice Department lawyers and analysts unanimously agreed that new laws violated the VRA, The Bush appointed Attorneys General over-ruled their own staff and permitted them to be enacted into law to the delight of Republican partisans.
Justice Department lawyers and analysts unanimously concluded that the Texas redistricting plan illegally diluted Black and Hispanic voting power. They also concluded that the Texas officials who endorsed the plan were aware that it might violate the Voting Rights Act but pushed ahead anyway because it would maximize the number of House seats the GOP could win.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sheldon Bradshaw a Bush political appointee over-ruled the staff conclusion and approved the change. As a result, Texas Republicans gained five seats in the U.S. House in the 2004 elections, solidifying their control of Congress.
As these examples (just 2 of many) show, renewing Section 5 and the other expiring VRA provisions will do little good so long as the Bush administration or any administration is allowed to ignore the law or enforce it in a partisan manner.
The Republican assault on voting rights is not limited to evading or ignoring the VRA. In recent years Republican legislators at both the state and federal level have passed laws and issued regulations using tactics and strategies not covered by the VRA designed to discourage voting by those at the bottom of the economic ladder. For example:
The rich and the powerful will always seek to limit or manipulate the voting rights of those who might wish to change the status quo. In the final analysis, only active, vigilant, popular movements of ordinary citizens can defend and expand voting rights or, for that matter, any other rights. That is why it is so important that we who value justice actively campaign for renewal of the Voting Rights Act, that we demand the VRA be enforced, and that we continue struggling to defend and expand voting rights. Laws by themselves cannot ensure justice or defend freedom only people can do that.
For more information on voting rights, see the following weblinks: