By Gilda R. Daniels, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Daniels, a former deputy chief in the Voting Section of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, will moderate a panel discussion during ACS's Voting Rights Symposium Sept. 28 (details to be announced).
I admit it. I am a Voting Rights Act baby. I was born 45 years ago and so was the Voting Rights Act. Just like me, the Voting Rights Act must adapt to and acknowledge a changing society, but we are far from over the hill and should not be discarded as a relic of the past. At the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Johnson called the passage of the VRA a "triumph for freedom" and linked the need for the VRA to the history of African Americans in America. After Bloody Sunday left the country in shock over man's inhumanity to man and countless efforts to secure equal voting rights through piecemeal litigation, then-Attorney General Katzenbach convinced Congress to pass and the President to sign the Voting Rights Act to serve as the vehicle that would tear down Jim Crow's barriers to the ballot, such as literacy tests and grandfather clauses. The Act was sorely needed. In March of 1965 in Alabama, only 19.3 percent of blacks were registered compared with 69.2 percent of whites, an almost 50 percent gap in registration rates. The most egregious state was Mississippi with a 63.2 percent gap between blacks and whites. Only 6.7 percent of its eligible Black voting age population was registered. (See "Minority Representation and the Quest for Voting Equality.") Have we made advances? Absolutely. Have we reached the post-racial Promised Land where the VRA is no longer needed? No.
Recently, the VRA has come under attack. VRA opponents in Georgia and Alabama have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Act and particularly its Section 5 provisions which require certain jurisdictions, mainly southern states, to receive approval before making any changes to the voting scheme. Changes can include anything from moving a polling place across the street to a Congressional redistricting. Many jurisdictions consider Section 5 onerous and out of date in this "post racial" world. They eagerly point to the White House as an example of how we, as a nation, have overcome. They neglect to point out, however, that in that historic election, candidate Obama did not win any of the states in the Deep South, where blatant injustices forced the federal government to respond with the VRA and where racially polarized voting continues to exist.
Although electing an African American as President of the United States is no small feat given our country's racial history, many barriers remain and must be eliminated before this country can reach full electoral equality. It is the electoral process that needs to be free of new millennium methods of disenfranchisement, including such acts of voter deception and intimidation as mistakenly and maliciously advertising that "Republicans (whites) vote on Tuesday and Democrats (blacks) vote on Wednesday." These acts go unpunished and unprosecuted, yet they impact minority voters. Additionally, the vast disparities in felon disenfranchisement laws across the country strip the ability to vote from those who are no longer incarcerated and are attempting to become honorable citizens. Yet, they are denied the opportunity to vote because of past indiscretions. In some states, more than 30% of African American males are disenfranchised because of felon disenfranchisement laws.
Is this a different country than it was on the birth of the VRA in 1965? God, I sure hope so. Gains have certainly been made and are in no small part attributable to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. True, the registration gaps between blacks and whites are close to or have been eliminated in most Southern states. In 2005, this country had about 9,500 black elected officials - an incredible gain from the approximate 1,500 in 1970. While there has certainly been an increase in the number of minorities in the Congress, the Senate continues to have one or no African American Senators and currently, only one African American serves as governor. I submit we should not gauge the success of the VRA solely within the black/white binary. The language minority provisions have opened a whole new world of equal electoral opportunity to citizens who speak languages other than English. The VRA has provided equal access to all citizens. It ensures that no person can be denied an equal opportunity to participate in the electoral process, but the battle is not over.
After 45 years, the Voting Rights Act, just like me, is reaching its stride and realizing that it has to make some changes to adjust to this new world that we live in full of electronic voting machines, voter ID requirements and the like. It's also recognizing the need to adapt to changing electoral methods and provide equal access to a new generation of voters. It's not time for the gold watch and the rocking chair, but time to continue to ensure equal opportunity for all.