An essential tool to protect minority interests in the US has been the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It has curbed discrimination at the ballot box and given blacks and other groups the electoral power to check discrimination elsewhere. So why mess with success?
One of the act's provisions (Section 5) is up for renewal with a vote on it in the House expected soon. This provision allows federal intervention in all or portions of 16 states – mostly in the South – that had a history of practicing voting discrimination before 1965. Such practices included literacy tests and poll taxes dating back to post-Civil War years.
Passage of Section 5 was all but certain until a group of House Republicans suddenly objected. They say the South has changed in four decades. Many blacks now hold public office – Mississippi has the highest number – and that singling out only a few states based mainly on old history is itself discriminatory.
The issue has deeply split the GOP. Some want the party to simply win more minority votes in this fall's elections by renewing the provision. Others care about lifting a stigma off the "new South" and ridding these states of the burden to have every change in election procedures precleared by the Justice Department.
One solution proposed by some of the provision's opponents would be to extend the act to all 50 states. That sounds fair enough except that the Supreme Court might easily then declare the act unconstitutional, based on an unjustified federal incursion on states' rights.
Rather, proponents of the act claim most of these designated states still have enough cases of racial or ethnic bias in voting procedures to justify extending Section 5 another 25 years in order to prevent potential backsliding using subtle discrimination.
Indeed, the Justice Department has rejected hundreds of proposed changes to election procedures from these states. And last month, the Supreme Court told the Texas legislature that it erred in redrawing a congressional district that excluded 100,000 Hispanic voters in order to ensure the reelection of a GOP lawmaker.
What's more, the act allows any voting jurisdiction to apply for release from federal supervision. Since the last renewal of the provision in 1982, eleven counties in Virginia have done so. If more voting locales had sought this "bailout," renewing Section 5 wouldn't be much of an issue.
As it is, passage of Section 5 is still needed.
There's another portion of the act being challenged. Section 203 requires bilingual ballots in any district with a significant minority of voters who are American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaska Natives, or Latinos. While new citizens are indeed expected to read some English, their proficiency is often not high enough to read ballot questions. Elderly new citizens, too, are not required to learn English. And many native peoples have English as a second language. This section is still needed.
The Voting Rights Act does need regular review to reflect changing conditions. One of its problems is that it encourages racial gerrymandering for "minority" congressional districts, a type of political isolation that's harmful to their interests.
But the act's fundamental purpose – ensuring access of the vote to all – must remain intact.