Saturday, August 06, 2005

Voting Rights Are So 20th Century

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most successful pieces of legislation in U.S. history. It swept away a century of discriminatory voting requirements and terrorism against would-be black voters. The result of all that African-American voting power since 1965 has been significantly increased representation of blacks and hispanics at both the national and the state levels.

So why has the Georgia state legislature just passed a law that will have the effect of making it harder for black people to vote? The law requires voters to obtain new kinds of photo identification that were not needed before. Georgia lawmakers say the law is necessary to prevent "fraud" -- but as we saw in the last two presidential elections, fraud seems to occur almost exclusively in heavily black voting districts. And the new requirements will have an outsized effect on black voters.

Before the Georgia law can take effect, though, it has to be approved by Alberto Gonzales, because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires election officials in nine -- mostly Southern -- states, to submit any changes in voting rules to the Justice Department for clearance. Section 5 also requires states to redraw congressional districts to provide for minority control of districts in which minorities predominate.

It is this section of the national Voting Rights Act that some members of Congress want to eliminate when the legislation comes up for reauthorization next year. They also want to get rid of Section 203, which requires election officials to make voting materials available in the native languages of voters who don't speak English.

Why would state and federal lawmakers want to cut voting rights provisions that have helped to empower millions of previously disenfranchised voters? Well, they say, because those provisions have fixed all that discrimination and so are not needed anymore.

...[S]ome conservative critics argue that Section 5 has all but wiped out major discrimination at the polls. Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said Congress should eliminate Section 5 -- which covers Virginia, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas -- and voters claiming discrimination should seek remedies in the courts, as they do in the 41 states that are not covered by the provision.

"Why can't they go to a federal court . . . and make an argument?" she said. "They've got the 14th Amendment. They don't need Section 5."

Which is a truly bizarre argument, considering that the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1866, a year after de jure slavery ended. Obviously, if the 14th Amendment had been enough to ensure the voting rights of black Americans, we would not have had 100 years of black Americans not being able to vote -- because of discriminatory voting rules, beating, lynching, cross-burning, and other highly effective forms of physical intimidation.

When people argue that laws and provisions within laws should be eliminated -- not because they have failed at achieving their intended goal, but because they have succeeded in achieving their intended goal -- you have to wonder about those people's true motivations. It's kind of strange to argue that a law or a provision should be repealed because it worked.

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