America has come a long way in the 50 years since the Voting Rights Act became law, but the nation still has a long way to go.
That’s expected to be the essence of President Barack Obama’s Thursday address to commemorate the passage of the landmark act on Aug. 6, 1965.
Mr. Obama’s message, coming in the midst of partisan debate over voter laws, will likely echo his statement five months ago at the anniversary of the first Selma to Montgomery, Ala, marches: We need to restore both the spirit and the letter of the Voting Rights Act.
"[T]oday – in 2015 – there are still too many barriers to the vote, and too many people trying to erect new barriers to the vote ... What’s more, we’ve seen steps to weaken the Voting Rights Act itself," Obama wrote Thursday in a post for the White House blog. "I've therefore called on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act. We must work to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."
Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago, the Voting Rights Act was designed to end discriminatory practices that prevented blacks and other minorities from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment. Specifically, as The New York Times puts it:
[The law] eliminated literacy tests and other Jim Crow tactics, and – in a key provision called Section 5 – required North Carolina and six other states with histories of black disenfranchisement to submit any future change in statewide voting law, no matter how small, for approval by federal authorities in Washington.
Until then, African Americans had rushed to the polls only to encounter such barriers as poll taxes and deliberately unfair literacy tests that "often involved arcane trivia or confusing wording," Vox reports.
The law was a turning point, "a signal accomplishment of the civil rights movement," writes the Times’s Jim Rutenberg.
Voter registration among African Americans has increased dramatically in the 50 years since the Act was passed, and black turnout in presidential elections today is about equal to white turnout – a huge shift from the status quo in the 1950s and 1960s, The Washington Post notes. In 1965, there were six black legislators in Congress, all of them in the House. Today there are 48, with two serving in the Senate.
But in the last few years, civil rights advocates have denounced "a concerted push to restrict voting by legislative majorities," Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, wrote for The American Prospect.
The most high-profile of those efforts is the 2013 case out of Shelby County, Ala., in which the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the law, ruling that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination are no longer required to obtain clearance for voting changes from the Justice Department.
Congress passed the special provision in response to persistent and repeated attempts in some jurisdictions in the 1960s to deny minority voters the ability to cast meaningful ballots.
By requiring those with an egregious history of discrimination to submit any election changes, the federal government was able to prevent and deter discrimination. The measure was considered the most effective civil rights law ever enacted by Congress.
The problem was that the formula used by Congress to designate which state and local governments must submit to the special treatment had not been significantly updated since the 1960s and 1970s.
In their ruling, the majority justices said that if Congress wished to subject the states to such treatment, the coverage formula must be updated to reflect current conditions and current needs.
Efforts to update that provision have stalled in Congress.
In all, 22 states – almost all of them Republican-dominated – have implemented some form of voter restriction since 2010, according to NYU's Brennan Center for Justice. These include rolling back early voting and Election Day registration laws, or requiring voters to present government-issued IDs or offer proof of citizenship before being allowed to vote.
Advocates of these efforts say the objective is to protect the sanctity of the poll.
"Assuring the integrity of the voting process is something that most citizens instinctively understand is the right thing to do. [Today], you need a picture ID to get on a plane, ride Amtrak, open a bank account, perform any transaction with most businesses and government, as well as buy alcohol or tobacco," conservative blogger Jonathan S. Tobin noted in an op-ed for Monitor. "Why is voting less important? States must preserve the integrity of the ballot process, especially in an era of close elections."
There may be a middle way, Richard Hasen, a professor at the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine, wrote for the Monitor. A national voter ID card could reduce costs and restore trust in a way that goes "beyond the stale debate in which Republicans complain about voter fraud and Democrats yell about voter suppression."
It remains unclear whether or not the president will touch on bipartisan paths forward during his teleconference speech for the Voting Rights Act anniversary.
"The President has been concerned, and even dismayed, by the significant amount of energy and effort that’s been expended almost exclusively by Republicans to make it more difficult for eligible citizens to cast a ballot," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. "And that is what motivates the President’s view of this policy, and that’s why the President is marking the 50th anniversary of this historic piece of legislation."