Are Our Voting Rights at Risk?
Will African American voting rights expire in 2007? In this election year, as people are being exhorted to go to the polls to shape the direction of our country, an Internet rumor is circulating raising questions about the durability of the African American right to vote. The rumor has amazing durability. Not a week passes without a new query on this matter emerging, usually from a young person.
Here’s the real deal: The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, guarantees that the right to vote shall not be denied on the base of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Southern states, especially, found ways to get around this law with grandfather clauses (which only allowed people to vote if their grandfather had voted), literacy tests, poll taxes and various character tests. Though many African Americans exercised the right to vote between 1870 and 1876, by 1910, a combination of discriminatory laws and domestic terrorism (the Ku Klux Klan) had disenfranchised African Americans.
Despite challenges to voter disenfranchisement at the federal level, Black voter registration levels were well below White registration levels in the South, with gaps of more than 50 percent in some cases. Mississippi had the lowest rate of African American voter registration — 6.7 percent — in 1965. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of White Mississippians were registered to vote, a gap of nearly 63 percent. While our nation’s most intense battles for voting rights were focused on Mississippi, it is just one of several Southern states that systematically disenfranchised Black voters.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed because “case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat widespread and persistent discrimination in voting.” The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act in 1966, noting that “After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the 15th Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims.”
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act outlaws tactics that weaken the voting strength of minorities. It prevents local jurisdictions from implementing policies that tilt the electoral playing field against minority voters. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is temporary legislation that requires the entire states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and parts of several other states to “preclear” changes in voting laws before implementing them and to consider whether changes will weaken the position of minority voters. These areas are singled out because they were places where minorities “have had historical difficulties in voting.”
When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Section 5 was passed as a temporary provision of the act. The act was extended and amended in 1975 to protect the rights of language minorities and to mandate bilingual ballots and oral assistance to voters who speak Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, American Indian and Eskimo languages. In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was strengthened and extended for 25 years. It will expire in 2007 unless it is extended again.
Section 5 does not establish the right to vote, but it provides for enforcement of voting laws. If it is not extended, African Americans will not lose the right to vote. Still, some voting rights activists feel that Section 5 must be extended and see the 2004 election as key to establishing the need for continued voting rights protection. “The 2000 election reminded us that the Voting Rights Act is still necessary,” said Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation. She says that there are efforts around the country to document assaults on the right to vote, such as those that took place in Florida in 2000, to establish the clear need for extending the Voting Rights Act.
Even with Section 5 protections, those who would weaken the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities have been busy. California’s gubernatorial recall election, which reduced the number of polling places, may well have had a deleterious effect on minority voter participation. The Florida effort to purge voter rolls was clearly designed to suppress minority voter participation. When voters who have queued up for hours are told the polls are closed, as happened in Missouri (not a Section 5 state) in 2000, voting rights have been violated. And as long as John Ashcroft’s Justice Department is enforcing the Voting Rights Act, we have to raise questions about how much we should rely on a single piece of legislation.
After 2000, our mantra should be “Voting Rights, Use Them or Lose Them,” since even an extension of the Voting Rights Act won’t stop attacks on our right to vote. We ought to be concerned with all of the mechanics of voting, with the composition of local boards of election, with the regulations that will determine when voters can register and how long polling places stay open. We ought to be concerned with the fact that one in seven Black men cannot vote at all because they are ex-offenders, disenfranchised for life in states like Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. And we ought to be concerned that more than 55 million Americans of voting age simply don’t engage in the voting process.
Because of the high price we paid to secure the right to vote we ought to both be passionate about exercising our voting rights and vigilant that these rights might be threatened. When we educate new voters, in our communities and on our campuses, we should make it clear that our voting rights are only at risk when we so fully fail to exercise them that we cede our democratic process to warmongering despots who would sacrifice our rights to their economic interests.
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