Voting Rights Act: Have We Changed So Much?

300px-Segregation_1938bA key provision of the Voting Rights Act (first adopted in 1965), provides that jurisdictions with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination must get prior federal approval before changing election laws. Many, but not all Southern states, and a scattering of states, counties, and municipalities elsewhere, remain subject to that stipulation.

In June, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court was widely expected to rule the provision unconstitutional. Instead, an 8-1 majority issued a narrow ruling that allowed the provision to continue, but warned Congress to take account of how the country has changed. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, on grounds that the blatant discrimination that occasioned the law is no more, and therefore the law should be deemed unconstitutional now.

How much has the South changed? How much has the country as a whole changed? On the face of it, the South has changed radically. Before 1965, Southern states systematically posed legal and informal barriers that prevented almost all blacks from voting. Poll taxes and literacy tests were administered unfairly so as to block blacks while allowing whites to vote. Outright intimidation and violence were not uncommonly applied to those blacks who nonetheless insisted on voting. The monopoly of the Democratic Party in most parts of the South meant that the real contests were in the primary, not the general election, and primaries were generally judged by the courts as private affairs not subject to the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment, which enfranchised former slaves and their descendants. This comprehensive system of discrimination had been in place since the end of Reconstruction. The enactment and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (and the preceding 1964 Civil Rights Act) was like a devastating earthquake to the racist order of the old South.

The South was required, finally, to become more like the rest of the country. That (along with air conditioning) made the dynamic New South possible. Blatant, public racism and discrimination were no longer permitted. Blacks registered and voted in large numbers. Whites began a long process of migrating to the Republican Party, as the Democrats increasingly abandoned the old Solid South and became more liberal. The Republicans, correspondingly, downplayed their identification with Lincoln and Abolition, moving toward an increasingly ideological conservatism that appealed preeminently to Southern whites. It was no accident that Barry Goldwater, in 1964, carried only his own state and most of the Deep South. That was the foundation for the new Republican Party, built by Reagan, as we know it today.

In most of the South today, the Republicans are the party of the white majority; the Democrats have the support of blacks, Latinos, and a minority of white liberals. That makes the Republicans almost as dominant as the Democrats were in the Old South. They can’t use the old techniques to keep blacks from voting, but they can and do gerrymander, they can and do pass voter ID and “anti-fraud” legislation that are administered in a manner that discriminates against poor blacks and Latinos. The techniques are more subtle: educated, middle class blacks can get through, but the intent is still to keep black voting down enough to assure white control.

The blatant manipulation of the vote count in Florida in 2000, to the disadvantage of black voters and Al Gore, serves to emphasize that this is not only a problem in the Deep South. The Republican-dominated state government had the motive and the means to deny the vote to thousands of African-Americans, and finally had five conservative Republican votes on the Supreme Court to back them up. Those same five are the ones who threaten the Voting Rights Act today.

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It is true that voting discrimination also occurs outside the South. It’s not as common, but the difference between the South and the rest of the country is less extreme than it was in 1965. But the answer to that convergence is not to do away with a proven tool for electoral justice, but rather to make all states equally subject to it. Even as blacks have less trouble voting, we are in an era of strong anti-Latino prejudice and rapid growth in the Latino electorate. This is no time to give in to the right-wing agenda by gutting the Voting Rights Act.

John Peeler

LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on June 26, 2009
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

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