The Voting Rights Act -- still needed

The Voting Rights Act, the most basic civil rights achievement of the 1960s, is due to expire next year. This act has accomplished in 17 years what the 14th and 15th Amendments and 100 years of litigation could not: the enfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of racial and language minorities.

Since its enactment, minority registration and voting rates have risen dramatically, as have the number of minorities seeking and holding public office. But the tremendous progress made under the act cannot be interpreted to mean that threats to minority voting rights are a thing of the past and enforcement is no longer needed. Minority registration still lags behind nonminority registration, and minorities remain underrepresented on elected bodies at all levels of government.

Legislation to extend the act for 10 years has been introduced, but a battle is brewing between those who want to preserve the act's special enforcement provisions and those who want these provisions, particularly Section 5, eliminated.

Section 5 requires election officials in jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to submit any proposed changes in election procedures to the federal government for approval. The act has worked precisely because Section 5 has made it work; to eliminate this provision would render the act a hollow and meaningless gesture, a token nod to the ideal of full minority participation in the electoral process.

As traditional community leaders in conducting voter education and registration drives, local Leagues of Women Voters in areas covered by the act offer persuasive evidence of a continuing need for Section 5. They report that subtly discriminatory attitudes and practices continue to create a climate hostile to the idea of full and equal minority participation.

Perhaps the most damaging attitude is the pervasive belief that voting is a privilege, not a right. This assumption has led to the retention of practices that make registration less accessible to minorities, despite the act's protections. Persistent barriers include inconvenient registration times and places, inadequate registration opportunities and information, and attempts to adopt or retain election schemes that dilute minority voting strength.

The burden of ensuring minority registration then falls upon community groups , who must produce and distribute registration and voting information to potential voters. Yet when community groups turn to local election officials for assistance, they are often met with resistance, and in some cases, ridicule.

Despite this hostile climate, there is proof that the Voting Rights Act works because of Section 5's enforcement capability. During the 1980 election, the DeKalb County, Ga., Board of Elections abruptly discontinued its practice of authorizing civic groups to register voters in the evenings and on Saturdays in such places as supermarkets and libraries. According to the DeKalb County League of Women Voters, this policy change had the effect of making voter registration less accessible, particularly to minority citizens, who had been registered in significant numbers as a result of these drives.

The local League and the county NAACP sued the county election board for failing to submit the change to the Justice Department for Section 5 preclearance. A federal court agreed that Section 5 review was required, the Department of Justice subsequently rejected the change, and the Board of Elections rescinded the policy.

Without Section 5, attempts to challenge the DeKalb County change and an untold number of other discriminatory election changes would be difficult, if not impossible. Case- by-case litigation, the only weapon minorities would have left to protest discriminatory changes, would put us back on the "merry-go-round" that existed before Section 5: as soon as the courts struck down one discriminatory election change, another change was legislated, necessitating yet another round of litigation.

As long as minority voting rights continue to be threatened by persistent discriminatory attitudes, Section 5 is needed as a bulwark against the imposition of new discriminatory registration and voting practices. The important role Section 5 has played in combating voting discrimination cannot be overstated. Although progress has been made, there is still a long way to go before all traces of discrimination are erased.

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