Debate Center: Should voting really be this controversial?
The period in the United States from Reconstruction through the 1960s hosted a great deal of historic events and changes. Repression and racism were rampant, while at the same time African Americans attempted to exercise their rights to vote. Even if one could get to a voting station, the literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and violence was argued as reasons why minorities – particularly African Americans – were in essence being prevented from exercising their right to vote. The injustices and the resulting inertia finally led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was enacted to provide an umbrella of protection for minorities against barriers that undermine their rights to vote. The VRA guarantees citizens no longer need to take complicated tests or suffer the whims of officials at polling places. To ensure these rights are protected, Section 5 of the VRA is in place to require federal approval for any changes to voting laws in areas where discrimination has been a particular problem historically.
Section 5 was recently an issue before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The Court heard oral arguments and issued statements that some claim now reveal their beliefs about the VRA. Based on Court analysts’ opinions, the five conservative justices seem poised to use their majority to strike it down. If they do, opponents are expected to argue any voting district in the country can issue rules about what is required in order to cast a vote and not require federal approval.
Supporters of the VRA are particularly shocked by the Court’s declarations. To them, gutting Section 5 is at best a Republican strategy to grab and sustain Republican majorities through gerrymandering, and at worst reinstitutes policies resembling Jim Crow segregation. Others similarly fear it would turn back the clock on the struggles won by African Americans in the twentieth century and deal a blow to the Civil Rights Movement. Still others offer supportive statistics illustrating the importance of the VRA: in Mississippi alone the federal government struck down attempted voting rule changes 173 times since 1965. Further, some note the Court’s tone to be strikingly at odds with Congress, which renewed the VRA with near unanimous approval in 2006.
VRA opponents support the conservative Supremes’ alleged leanings in believing the VRA is no longer necessary because African Americans have achieved and gained so much since 1965 that it essentially defines the act an anachronism. An African American now occupies the White House and will have occupied it for eight years. Others similarly think the VRA and its enforcement focuses too much on events and actions that happened long ago, suggesting that discriminatory practices have presented a smaller barrier over time. During the oral arguments, Justices Kennedy and Scalia suggested that the VRA is another example of needless government intrusion. Kennedy said the VRA interferes with Alabama’s sovereignty to manage its own rules aside from federal government mandates. Justice Scalia called it “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Perhaps the Voting Rights Act has done something few pieces of legislation have ever done: solve a problem. If that is the case, then Scalia and Kennedy are paying it the greatest compliment—it worked and is still working; we can move on now. A majority in Congress, however, seems to differ in favor of the VRA, citing the federal government has dealt with nearly 200 unacceptable changes to voting laws in just one state since 1965.
Debate Forum Question of the Week: Does the 1965 Voting Rights Act remain relevant today?
Debate Left: Voting Rights Act – protection for vulnerable voters
If Shelby County, Ala. does not plan to discriminate against African American voters, and if it plans to make only legitimate and unquestionable changes to its voting rules, then why is it so concerned with Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) that requires Southern states to get clearance from the Justice Department or the Federal District Court before making such changes? The fact that people believe we have moved so far beyond racial discrimination in America that we can overturn sections of the VRA is beyond my imagination. Beside the blatant point that we are far from racial equality, the question is, “Why is it a problem to keep certain measures in place to protect the voting rights of African Americans and other minority groups, just in case?”
Considering that minorities, particularly African Americans, typically vote for Democrats, Republicans have been on an aggressive redistricting campaign and have used innovative tactics to suppress the African American vote. The moves that Republicans made in an attempt to silence the minority vote in the 2012 presidential election exemplify the gross reality that we are not yet ready to leave voting protections for minorities behind. Whether people take the time to question certain attempts at changing voting laws is a different story. However, it is clear to many that redistricting majority African American counties, changing night and weekend voting hours typically used by minority voters, changing early voting and same day registration laws, moving voting locations, changing the voter registration list and requiring State ID cards are all different ways to achieve the same goal: suppressing the minority vote, which is essentially the Democrat vote. The changing demographics in this country will certainly shift future elections; Democrats and Republicans both understand this well, hence we should look at any attempt to change the monumental VRA with utmost scrutiny. The Republican Party is nervous and desperate, racism is rampant and we still need to make it a priority to protect African American and other minority voters. We must remember the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and highlight the necessity of Section 5 of the VRA to protect African American voters, while also recognizing that this section has been used increasingly to defend the Latino community from discriminatory voting laws nationwide, most recently in Texas and Arizona. To say that Section 5 of the VRA is still relevant today is an understatement: it is as necessary as ever and is now protecting a much larger minority population from discriminatory voting laws.
We should not deny that some states would abuse their power more than others and, thus, should follow specific legislation. The Republican campaign to silence the minority vote is a country-wide effort, but let us look at some numbers and see if we can find a trend: the Federal government has objected to 240 discriminatory voting changes in Alabama, 177 in Georgia and 173 in Mississippi since 1965, with many of the rejections occurring recently. As Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor highlighted in the Feb. 27 Oral Argument of Shelby County v. Holder, Alabama is not the right state to bring this suit forward. In the Oral Argument, Sotomayor reminded Rein, the attorney filing the petition, that Alabama does not have the best track record: “Assuming I accept your premise, and there’s some question about that, that some portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn’t […] why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?”
Beside the undeniable necessity to protect African American and minority voting rights in the most liberal democracy on Earth, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a historic piece of legislation in the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most significant points of achievement toward creating equality in American history. Overturning one of the most progressive and significant sections of the VRA would undermine the struggle and achievements of the American civil rights movement, and would give way to under-regulated discriminatory laws.
Debate Right: Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is no longer relevant
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Act established extensive federal oversight of the administration of elections for those states with a history of discriminatory voting practices. These states, known in the Act as “covered jurisdictions,” could not implement any change affecting voting without first obtaining the approval of the Justice Department, by a process known as “preclearance.”
Those states that had less than 50 percent of the voting age population registered to vote in 1960 and/or 1964 were covered in the original Act. In addition, some counties and towns that have been found in violation of Section 2 of the Act have been added. Currently the following states are included: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia (except for 24 counties) and parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan. Some cities and counties in Virginia and New Hampshire have since been found no longer to need preclearance.
Despite the fact that much has changed over the last 50 years, those jurisdictions singled out in the act for their practices in the 1960s are still required by law to receive federal permission for certain changes to election law or changes in venue. The Act, as it applies to many of these jurisdictions, is now largely irrelevant. These nine, mostly Southern, states and mostly Southern counties have complained that the practices banned by the Act disappeared long ago. Today, the racial make-up of elected officials throughout these “covered jurisdictions” is in fact multi-racial, showing that voter participation by minorities is strong. Critics of Section 5 complain that further compliance with the mandates of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is costly and unfair to their communities.
For example, even moving a voting location requires going through the Justice Department. In the 2009 case heard by the Supreme Court called Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Texas v. Holder, the lawsuit was brought by a municipal water district in Texas, which elects members to a water board. The district does not register voters, nor has it been accused of discrimination. However, it wished to move the voting location from a private home to a public school; the preclearance procedure required it to seek approval from the Justice Department because Texas is a covered jurisdiction under Section 5.
Justice Roberts wrote in that case that such an imposition on state sovereignty must be justified by current needs: “The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions.”
I understand that the politics of this issue is to try to paint Republicans as villains for wanting to remove the burdens of Section 5 from those states where the former practices are a distant memory. Contrary to myth, Republicans supported the original Voting Rights Act in stronger numbers than did the Democrats. In the Senate, 94 percent of Republicans voted in favor, while just 73 percent of Democrats voted for it. In the U.S. House of Representatives, 82 percent of Republicans voted in favor, compared to 78 percent of Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL), co-author of the 1965 VRA, helped outmaneuver Democrat opposition and bring the VRA into law. Those facts are often blurred over today, as they aren’t convenient to the present narrative painting Republicans as obstructionist.
Allowing states where there has not been significant voter discrimination for many years to escape the stigma of Section 5 would be a testament to how far as a country we have come. The rest of the VRA remains as a strong incentive for states to continue to adhere to fair voting practices. The Voting Rights Act has been one of the most successful statutes that Congress passed in the 20th century, but the selection of jurisdictions covered by Section 5 makes no sense today. The Supreme Court should rule to rid the affected states of this now irrelevant section of the VRA.
David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.