Thinking About the Future: The Voting Rights Act of 1965

writingLet’s kick this conversation off with a little bit of background:

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). This section requires certain states and localities with a history of discrimination to submit changes to election practices to a judicial authority before it can go into effect.

While the act as a whole enforces the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, this particular section was meant to prevent the poll taxes, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow tactics that infringed on the rights of African-American citizens to vote.

What’s the overarching argument about the case? In the years since the law’s enactment, and particularly with the election of Barack Obama, this provision is no longer necessary. [Read Supreme Court Case Explained or this response from Representative John Lewis]

It’s a troubling question, and one that I’m concerned about. On one hand I don’t think we have the type of institutionalized racism that existed at the time this legislation was passed. However, we are clearly not beyond racism. All across the country, the American relationship with race, and discrimination in general,has gained a 21st century edge—not just white vs. black.

But we’re talking about the vote. In the last election we’ve seen new methods of manipulation-specifically voter ID laws and the acts of gerrymandering by state legislatures. Under the guise of general re-districting it really is a way to control the outcome of elections to swing in one particular direction.

So what’s the solution? If the courts strike down Section 5 will the VRA lose its edge completely? Or will that open the doors to new revised legislation that can look at election practices across the country, regardless of geographic location? As important and symbolic of a step the election of Barack Obama was, I don’t believe that the election of one man means that we’ve ended discrimination or racism in the United States.

Alternatively, if the court upholds Section 5, will the twenty-five year continuance on the VRA by Congress mean that we won’t have a full conversation about race and election practices until 2031? Or can we take the time to find a better solution?

As a historian I understand the march of time, and I’ve stated before I believe in this country’s ability to continually move the needle toward a more perfect union–one that adapts and changes–meeting challenges as they arise. The optimist says that we can find a way, but the one that looks at the real world landscape we live in argues with my better angels.

I’m not sure I believe in the ability of our current congress (rather the political climate) to rise above and draft meaningful legislation addressing these issues.

In the end though, I keep looking at the recent movie Lincoln (otherwise known as the Final Moments in the Legislative History of the 13th Amendment). Fraught with political maneuvering and frustration, the amendment’s passage changed this country forever, but it did not solve our problems. It took decades upon decades to get us to where we are now—and I know that history provides the perspective so that we are ready to take the next step when the time comes.

Excerpt from Our Documents: Voting Rights Act of 1965

SEC. 5. Whenever a State or political subdivision with respect to which the prohibitions set forth in section 4(a) are in effect shall enact or seek to administer any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1964, such State or subdivision may institute an action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for a declaratory judgment that such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color, and unless and until the court enters such judgment no person shall be denied the right to vote for failure to comply with such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure: Provided, That such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure may be enforced without such proceeding if the qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure has been submitted by the chief legal officer or other appropriate official of such State or subdivision to the Attorney General and the Attorney General has not interposed an objection within sixty days after such submission, except that neither the Attorney General’s failure to object nor a declaratory judgment entered under this section shall bar a subsequent action to enjoin enforcement of such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure. Any action under this section shall be heard and determined by a court of three judges in accordance with the provisions of section 2284 of title 28 of the United States Code and any appeal shall lie to the Supreme Court.

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