The Renewal of the Voting Rights Act

Article excerpt

Periodically in recent years the claim that African Americans will lose the right to vote if the Voting Rights Act is not extended in 2007 circulates widely by email. It's likely we'll see another round soon.

The fear is completely wrong, of course. The expiration of the 1965 Act would affect only the special powers included in it to produce and protect blacks' electoral participation. The right to vote itself would not be affected-African Americans' right to vote resides in the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution; it's merely reaffirmed in the second section of the 1965 Act.1

Nonetheless, the claims' continuing currency within Black America is itself a powerful testament to the-historically justified, it must be said-wariness with which many African Americans consider their status. That sentiment has no doubt been strengthened by the vote-related controversies of the last two presidential elections, and the 2004 election results which gave the Republicans control of not only the White House and the Congress but also of those federal agencies blacks associate most closely with the protection of their rights. This is all the more reason Black America's mainstream leadership must put the 2007 renewal of the Voting Rights Act at the top of its agenda-and prepare itself organizationally for the battle to renew it.

African-American voting rights finally seemed secure when the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, and then extended successfully in 1970, 1975 and 1982; and its benefits for and to Black America and American society as a whole have been enormous. Now, however, as its renewal date nears, previous assumptions that voting rights policy is "settled" must be re-evaluated in light of new political realities. These include, as just mentioned, Republican control of the Congress and of the administrative agencies governing voting rights policy-including the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Another contingency, due to the grave illness of Chief Justice Rhenquist, is the likely re-shaping of the ideological balance on the U.S. Supreme Court. These developments, which threaten voting rights policy as we have known it, make it imperative that the civil rights lobby carefully consider its response to the changed dynamics of the nation's political landscape and how it plans to generate support for the Extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Voting Rights and the Power to Intervene

Pushed by the civil rights leadership, President Lyndon Johnson sent a Voting Rights Act to Congress immediately after the July 1964 passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. Little more than a year later, Johnson would sign the new act into being, too. Its purpose was to destroy the explicit barriers to voting erected by the segregationist South; it applied to states and jurisdictions where less than 50 percent of the total voting age population had registered or voted in the 1964 Presidential election, and states which had used a test such as a literacy test as part of its voter registration process.2 The Voting Rights Act marshaled extraordinary federal power to produce and protect voter registration and participation in elections. In the affected areas, federal examiners were authorized to monitor registration, to register voters, keep track of all those who had registered and make sure they stayed on the rolls. In other situations, federal officials were allowed to monitor elections. And in order to prevent state and local officials from creating new discriminatory electoral practices, the new law required these jurisdictions to seek prior approval for new voting changes from the U.S. District Court in Washington, or the Civil Rights Division of Justice. Thus, because under the Constitution, local governments had always managed the processes of elections, the Voting Rights Act gave extraordinary power to the federal government to remedy race-based discrimination in the southern states. …