The 1965 Voting Rights Act: Now In Name Only

4 years ago

I sat in my cubicle Tuesday morning as the history that I took for granted was made unconstitutional, when the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. At first I thought it was some kind of misunderstanding. It is not easy to be stripped of a fundamental American right.

It is painful. I am still in disbelief that one of the most important tools of the civil rights movement has been dismantled. Voting is a right that our country asks of its citizens to use to help govern our communities and our country.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, Image Credit: By Yoichi R. Okamoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On August 6, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that specifically prohibits states from using legislative tools to block or prevent American citizens to vote in elections.

The citizens in question were African-American but the act applies to all citizens.

Voting is not a racial entitlement. Yes, I know at least one member of the Supreme Court believes that is the case. I have not forgotten the words used by Justice Scalia in oral arguments in February 2012:

“I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

How quickly we forget and dismiss our collective and joined histories.

The VRA was signed into law because there were people, primarily white men at the time, who did not want anyone other than themselves to vote or have a say in the governance of their communities.

The act was necessary because there were states and counties that willfully disregarded or violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution; specifically that no state would be allowed to abridge the rights of citizens.

And let’s not forget that the 15th Amendment was ignored as well:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The amendments looked good in writing, but the reality of implementation in the 20th century was not. States and local communities devised literacy tests, land ownership requirements, poll taxes and other methods to keep specific populations from voting in elections.

That is, they were not shooting, killing, lynching and imposing their will upon the people.

Challenges to the VRA have never stopped. In recent elections, there were attempts by state governments to restrict who can vote by voter ID laws, purging of voter registration rolls that target certain ethnic groups and convoluted registration processes.

No, they don’t burn your house down any more. They just pretend that you and your neighbors don’t exist.

To be clear, the actual Voting Rights Act is still in place. However, the method used in to evaluate and enforce voter improprieties in Section 4 has been invalidated.

And without the data to evaluate the behavior of states and counties under the VRA, then Section 5, which is still technically active, becomes null and void. The Act is still in place but there is no longer any recording, accountability or potentially, no enforcement.

Where Does This Leave Us?

After the shock wears off, there is a kind of muted anger. We have now joined other countries that will allow voting irregularities under the guise of states' rights.

We have a Congress that is so partisan and divided that no one believes that they could structure a replacement for Section 4 that could be applied to all 50 states.

Perhaps that is the most hurtful part of this madness. Our distrust of our elected officials is so strong we don’t believe that the current Congress has any willingness to step beyond partisan politics.

There is viable 21st century solution that could be applied to the entire country waiting to be invoked. Are we so apathetic we don’t even want to think about trying?

So, What Can We Do About It?

We dream big. We hit them high in Congress to demand that day one of the new session starts with repairing the Voting Rights Act.

Maybe we we move the Voting Rights Act from law to a very specific type of amendment.

We hit them low at the local and state levels and make it clear that voter mischief will not be tolerated.

It would have to be a joint effort that would include input but not blockages from various voices and political parties.

Yes, we’d have to work together to make this right for our future citizens.

Is there any political will or political leadership to do this?

Hell no. That is why we the people have to make this happen.

Fifty years ago the impossible became law.

We can do it again.

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