What Went Wrong with the Voting Rights Act

By Schuck, Peter H. | The Washington Monthly, November 1987 | Go to article overview

What Went Wrong with the Voting Rights Act


Schuck, Peter H., The Washington Monthly


What Went Wrong With the Voting Rights Act

As every middle-aged reader of the Monthly will recall, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was swiftly enacted in the wake of the turbulent march on Selma to combat black disenfranchisement in those southern states that had abused literacy tests and other conditions on voting.

The act's success in drawing minorities into electoral activity is unquestionably among the greatest triumphs of modern American politics. Since 1965, black and Hispanic political participation and influence have burgeoned. The number of black elected officials has grown enormously. Black and Hispanic politicians run many of America's largest cities, sit in increasing numbers in Congress and the state legislatures, and occupy influential administrative posts at all levels of government. Hispanics have won gubernatorial races and blacks are poised to do so in some states. Most important, minorities are swing constituencies in many areas still represented by whites; their decisive electroal power has forced segregationist politicians like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace to reverse fervently avowed positions and to court minority political support through patronage, pork, and other concessions. The opposition of virtually all southern Democratic senators to Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court vividly exemplifies their responsiveness to black constitutents.

But few may realize that in the years since 1965, the federal courts and the Department of Justice began to implement the act in ways that by 1982 had radically altered its goals and methods. From a guarantee of racial minorities' 15th Amendment right to cast ballots, the act has been turned into a kind of racial quota system for legislators. Federal bureaucrats have invalidated at-large electoral systems, packing minorities into single member districts so that only members of their group can win.

Congress has approved these changes and steadily enlarged the act's scope. Most recently, in 1982, it made voting rights violations easier to prove and extended the act's "emergency' provisions, originally slated to expire in 1970, until the year 2007. Although these amendments specified that they were not intended to create proportional representation by race, they have been used to advance that very purpose. Instead of insuring equal political opportunities for minorities, the act is now interpreted to prescribe electoral outcomes, enforced by racial allocations of legislative seats.

This evolution of the Voting Rights Act, Abigail Thernstrom writes in this fascinating study*, is "controversial policy that has somehow stirred no controversy.' The long awaited appearance of her book will change all that.

* Whose Vote Counts? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. Abigail M. Thernstrom. Harvard University Press, $25.

Towards the extreme

The Voting Rights Act was a striking political innovation with immediate, far-reaching effects. Its central provision prohibited any qualification that limited voting rights. But it also adopted three "emergency' provisions that would expire, unless renewed, in five years. One prohibited literacy tests or similiar devices in those jurisdictions where they had been used and where voter registration or turnout in the 1964 presidential election was below 50 percent--southern states. Another authorized the appointment of federal voting examiners in those jurisdictions. The third required local and state governments to obtain Department of Justice "preclearance' of almost all changes in voting rules and procedures.

Thernstrom's story, written with scrupulous balance and obvious sympathy for the cause of racial justice, reveals numerous ironies. The South's long political oppression of blacks ended up empowering them. States' Rights claims trigered a far more intrusive federal intervention than anything since Reconstruction. …

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