50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act – still necessary today

Since our sad small town newspaper the Arizona Daily Star did nothing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, here is the editorial from the New York Times and an op-ed by Ari Berman of The Nation.

The Times editorializes, The Voting Rights Act at 50:

voting-rights-act-signed-16x91For the first 48 years of its existence, the Voting Rights Act — signed by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago this week — was one of the most popular and effective civil rights laws in American history. Centuries of slavery, segregation and officially sanctioned discrimination had kept African-Americans from having any real voice in the nation’s politics. Under the aggressive new law, black voter registration and turnout soared, as did the number of black elected officials.

Recognizing its success, Congress repeatedly reaffirmed the act and expanded its protections. The last time, in 2006, overwhelming majorities in both houses extended the law for another 25 years. But only seven years later, in 2013, five Supreme Court justices elbowed in and concluded, on scant evidence, that there was no longer a need for the law’s most powerful tool; the Voting Rights Act, they claimed, had done its job.

In truth, the battle for voting rights has had to be unrelenting, and the act itself has been under constant assault from the start. As Ari Berman writes in his new history of the law, “Give Us the Ballot,” the act’s revolutionary success “spawned an equally committed group of counterrevolutionaries” who have aimed to dismantle the central achievements of the civil rights movement.

Today there are no poll taxes or literacy tests. Instead there are strict and unnecessary voter-identification requirements, or cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration — all of which are known to disproportionately burden black voters.

The relative subtlety of the newer measures does not make them any less insidious. But it does make them more resistant to charges of illegality. A federal trial that ended last week in North Carolina provided the clearest example of the challenges faced by those who want to protect democracy’s most fundamental right.

The case involves an appalling anti-voter law, H.B. 589, that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed in a duplicitous maneuver only weeks after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling. The law rolled back 15 years of voting rights measures, including same-day registration, which 90,000 North Carolinians used in 2012; a week of early voting used by 900,000; out-of-precinct registration; and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

If North Carolina were under federal supervision, as much of the state had been before the Supreme Court’s ruling, H.B. 589 would almost surely have been blocked for its disproportionate impact on black voters, who tend to vote Democratic. But because of the ruling, the state’s legislators were free to impose a raft of restrictions based on bogus claims of electoral integrity and efficiency. The legislators refused to testify at trial.

Powerful voting-rights advocacy groups — including the N.A.A.C.P., the A.C.L.U., the League of Women Voters and the Advancement Project — sued immediately upon the law’s passage, claiming that it intentionally targeted minority voters, and yet more than two years and one federal election later, it remains largely in place and may well survive the current challenge.

This demonstrates the need for the Voting Rights Act’s supervision scheme, which the Supreme Court eliminated. If there was any question that the court had misjudged the reality on the ground, it was answered by the speed with which North Carolina, Texas and other states moved to impose discriminatory new voting laws.

[5th Circuit Court of Appeals: Texas ID Law Violated Voting Rights Act, Panel Says]

State officials complain that it is not fair to keep punishing them for the sins of the past. But as the plaintiffs’ lawyer argued during the North Carolina trial, “the fight for equal voting rights is not ancient history.” Rather it “has been an arduous, slow effort to overcome one barrier placed in the path of African Americans after another.”

In North Carolina, as in many places around the country that are determined to undermine the right to vote, the past is far from over.

Ari Berman of The Nation, who reports voting rights extensively, has this op-ed at the Times. Why the Voting Rights Act Is Once Again Under Threat:

In his opinion for the majority in the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, which struck down a major section of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that “history did not end in 1965.” But the sad truth is that voter-suppression efforts did not end, either.

In 2014, the first post-Shelby election, thousands were turned away by new restrictions in states like Texas and North Carolina. A 2014 study by the Government Accountability Office found that voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by 2 to 3 percent during the 2012 election, enough to swing a close vote, with the highest drop-off among young, black and newly registered voters.

This could be a disturbing preview for 2016, which will be the first presidential contest in 50 years where voters cannot rely on the full protections of the act. New restrictions will be in place in up to 15 states, which account for as many as 162 electoral votes, including crucial swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia.

The act, signed 50 years ago today, was the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. It swept aside longstanding practices that disenfranchised voters, and prevented new ones from emerging: Between 1965 and 2013 the Justice Department and federal courts blocked more than 3,000 discriminatory voting changes. But it is precisely that capacity, known as preclearance, that the Roberts court invalidated.

The backlash to the law was as immediate as its progress. Southern states quickly challenged its constitutionality, and several changed their election laws to stop newly registered black voters and candidates from winning elected office.

The battle soon shifted from registration to representation, from the right to vote to the value of that vote. In 1969, the Supreme Court declared that the federal government had the power to block the “second-generation” voting restrictions adopted by Southern states to subvert the growing minority vote, like gerrymandering, consolidating smaller black areas with larger white ones and switching from district to countywide elections, where the white majority remained in control.

But as the reach of the law expanded, so did the opposition to it. When minority candidates began to be elected in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, “colorblindness” replaced states’ rights as a more respectable rallying cry for opponents. They held that the law should only block obstacles to voter registration, like literacy tests, rather than outlawing electoral schemes that prevented minority voters from winning office.

In the 1980s, resistance to the civil rights laws of the 1960s became a defining cause for ambitious young conservatives like John Roberts, who wrote dozens of memos criticizing the Voting Rights Act while serving in the Reagan Justice Department. He believed the act should prohibit only intentional discrimination in voting, which was nearly impossible to prove. He lost that fight when Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the act in 1982, but the Reagan administration appointed a generation of judges who approached it with deep skepticism.

The backlash entered a new phase after the 2000 election, when a botched voter purge in Florida, while Jeb Bush was governor, disproportionately prevented African-Americans from voting and helped George W. Bush win the White House. The Bush administration reoriented the Justice Department, prioritizing prosecutions of voter fraud over investigations into voter disenfranchisement.

The push to make it harder to vote escalated after the Tea Party’s triumph in the 2010 elections, when half the states, nearly all of them under Republican control, passed new voting restrictions, which disproportionately targeted the core of President Obama’s coalition, particularly minority voters. The voting changes were subtler than those of the 1960s, camouflaging efforts to deter voting with laws that rarely invoked race, introduced with equal fervor in North and South alike.

Many of these laws were blocked in court during the 2012 election and helped inspire a backlash by minority voters. That year, for the first time in a presidential election, the percentage of blacks who turned out to vote exceeded that of whites.

Then came Shelby County. Laws that were previously stopped under the act, like Texas’ strict voter ID law, immediately went into effect, while new states rushed to pass tougher voting restrictions. (On Wednesday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld a lower-court ruling that struck down the Texas law.) A month after the Shelby County decision, North Carolina passed a sweeping restructuring of its election system, repealing or curtailing nearly every reform in the state that made it easier to vote.

The Justice Department and civil rights groups are challenging the new law in federal court. North Carolina is making the familiar argument that the lawsuit amounts to “the equivalent of election law affirmative action.”

But even if the plaintiffs win, that’s just one law, in one state. The voting rights landscape today most closely resembles the period before 1965, when the blight of voting discrimination could be challenged only on a torturous case-by-case basis.

What can be done? The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, introduced in Congress in June, would compel states with a recent history of voting discrimination to once again clear election changes with the federal government and would require approval for specific measures that often target minority voters today. But the bill hasn’t gone anywhere. On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Congress won’t even schedule a hearing.

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Ari Berman is the author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”

5 responses to “50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act – still necessary today

  1. Frances Perkins

    I see Phil Hart of Michigan standing next to Hubert Humphery. Hart one of the great minds of the Senate in the 60s and 70s. As opposed to the no minds of todays, like Cotton, McConnell, Cruz, Inhofe, Graham (who like the Senile Old Coot, never saw a war he didn’t want someone else to fight.)

  2. “…all of which are known to disproportionately burden black voters.”

    If one believes the folklore and opinions of the left, it is “known”, but if you seek empirical evidence of this added burden, and don’t depend on anecdotal “evidence”, it is a highly questionable proposition.

    • Can you breathe down there in that deep, dark hole you got your head stuck in??

    • AZ BlueMeanie

      It has already been demonstrated by empirical evidence in several court cases in which the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Unlike your mere opinions which are never subjected to scrutiny. “Don’t bother me with the facts, I know what I believe!” Typical right-wing troll.