The voting rights acts is now 40 years old, and it is amazing how far the nation has come in four decades to assure everyone has access to a right that the majority of Americans take for granted.
When signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, the law banned literacy tests, poll taxes and other barriers that southern states had erected after blacks won the vote with ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1868. Passage of the law followed voting rights demonstrations in the South that saw demonstrators and activists knocked over by fire hoses, attacked by dogs, beaten by police and even murdered.
Within three years after the law passed, more than a million new nonwhite voters cast ballots in southern states. At the time the law was enacted, there were three black members of Congress; today there are 43. There are also 25 Hispanic House members and one Hispanic senator, compared with five members of Congress in 1965. Still, it took almost 25 years before the nation elected its first black governor, Douglas Wilder of Virginia.
What it did
The act guaranteed the right to vote to every American, regardless of race. Its basic tenets are permanent, but certain provisions must be renewed by Congress from time to time. The last renewal was in 1982. Those provisions will expire unless renewed by the end of next year.
Some conservative critics argue that two key provisions should be modified or even allowed to expire. One of those provisions, Section 5, requires states to draw minority-controlled congressional districts if black and Hispanic voters dominate certain residential areas. It also requires election officials in nine states, mostly in the South, to submit any voting rules changes that might affect minorities to the Justice Department for pre-clearance.
Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, has suggested that Congress should eliminate Section 5 and simply allow voters claiming discrimination to seek remedies in the courts.
"Why can't they go to a federal court ... and make an argument?" she said. "They've got the [equal protection clause of the] 14th Amendment. They don't need Section 5."
It is strange how conservatives generally view courts as the sources of all evil -- they drive up the cost of medicine, tie the hands of businessmen, attempt to legislate from the bench and are a millstone around the neck of the economy. But when it comes to a law designed to ensure voting rights for citizens, a member of the Civil Rights Commission says, if people think they're being denied the right to vote, let them sue.
The other provision under scrutiny, Section 203, requires election officials to assist immigrant voters who don't speak English by providing them with voting material in their native language. The provision is being less widely challenged because it benefits Asian Americans, Latinos, Eastern Europeans and others on both sides of the political divide.
There have been some interesting philosophical arguments made over the effect that court-ordered redistricting aimed at empowering minority voters may have had on larger voting patterns. But the Voting Rights Act has done more in 40 years to level the playing field than the 15th Amendment was able to do in 97 years.
For that reason alone it should be renewed.
It should also be renewed because the sanctity of the vote is essential to democracy. Not even the appearance of skewed elections should be tolerated. In recent years, there have been claims of antiquated voting machines being assigned in disproportionate numbers to minority districts and longer voting lines in cities than in suburbs. Black voters complained of being wrongly identified as felons and crossed off the voting rolls in the 2000 presidential election.
These anecdotes cannot be dismissed lightly.
In a recent op-ed piece for the Washington Post, former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kansas, proudly pointed out that President Reagan signed the reauthorization of the voting rights act into law in 1982, calling the right to vote "the crown jewel of American liberties."
But it is worth noting today that a young aide in Reagan's Justice Department wrote memos strongly advocating a policy that would shorten the law's reach. The policy sought to bar only voting rules that discriminated intentionally, as opposed to barring rules that have a discriminatory effect. The author of those memos: John G. Roberts Jr., the man President Bush has nominated to the Supreme Court.
It is up to Congress to make it clear that discriminatory practices that undermine the principle of one person, one vote are not to be tolerated. There should be no backsliding in guaranteeing every citizen's right to vote.