VRA, All of It, Forever? the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Was the Noblest Law of the 20th Century. Some of Its Provisions, However, Are Now Weird-And Worse

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, October 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

VRA, All of It, Forever? the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Was the Noblest Law of the 20th Century. Some of Its Provisions, However, Are Now Weird-And Worse


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and included a number of "emergency" provisions that were set to expire as early as 1970 but were extended and amended in 1970, 1975 and 1982. They will soon be extended for a fourth time, two years before they are due to expire--and for another 25 years. This bipartisan rush illustrates the descent of the residue of the civil-rights movement into the barren politics of gesture and nostalgia. The eager participation of Republicans demonstrates cravenness and two kinds of opportunism, one deservedly futile, the other disgracefully successful.

The VRA ranks above Social Security, the GI Bill of Rights and other landmark legislation as the 20th century's noblest and most transformative law. Before it, African-Americans in the South depended on something undependable--the kindness of strangers. Largely excluded from the electorate, they could not compel the good will of the political class. Until 1965, when swift change began.

Today there are 43 African-American members of the House and Senate and more than 9,000 elected state and local officials. The state with the largest number? Mississippi. Second and third? Alabama and Louisiana. So why the continuing pretense that the right to vote is, for African-Americans, precarious and, unless the full VRA is preserved forever, perishable?

One reason is that prominent Democrats, with their habit of seizing their own party's jugular, present the party as a bad, although practiced, loser. They assert what evidence refutes--"disenfranchising" (John Kerry's word) "a million" (Kerry's number) African-American voters in 2000, and the "suppression" (Howard Dean's word) of African-American votes in Ohio in 2004. Such meretricious laments encourage some African-American leaders to strike familiar sterile poses of victimhood. For some civil-rights organizations that are reluctant to recast their mission in response to their successes, and for some African-American leaders comfortable with a vocabulary of angry complaint 40 years old, renewal of the VRA's initially temporary provisions is a comfortable and unstrenuous, although irrelevant, project.

Consider the "preclearance" provision that requires certain jurisdictions get the federal government's permission to make any change--even as small as moving a polling place--in electoral arrangements. The places bound by the preclearance provision are identified by a formula based on minority participation in elections more than three decades ago. The results are weird. Virginia is covered, West Virginia is not. …

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