The 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
- 08/07/2015 by Zack Murphy (WBAI News)

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a pen to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the the signing of the voting rights act as officials look on behind them, Washington, D.C., August 6, 1965. Photo Courtesy of the Washington Bureau/Getty Images
Signed into law on August 6, 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, The Voting Rights Act was the monumental piece of civil rights legislation passed during the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were present at the signing. 

The Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Its purpose was to fortify the very voting rights that were legally guaranteed to all citizens under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution. It is part of President Johnson's Great Society series of legislative victories. It's true legacy is rooted in the sacrifices of civil rights activists, both known and unknown, who fought tirelessly to expand the true meaning of a democratic process and mass enfranchisement of racial minorities throughout the country.

On the anniversary President Barack Obama said, "Americans owe a great debt, to thousands, many of them unnamed, who were courageous enough to walk up and try to register time and time again. Sharecroppers, maids, ordinary folks — had it not been for them awakening the consciousness of the nation,  President  Johnson could not have mustered the political support that was required to ultimately get this seminal law passed." 

The Voting Rights Act contained provisions for the administration of local, state, and federal elections.  They provided a nationwide set of procedures and protections, by which voting rights would be guaranteed by Department of Justice guidelines for each state to honor and abide by legally. 

Section 2 of The Voting Rights Act was the most famous set of these provisions.  This general provision prohibited all 50 states and their local governments from imposing any voting laws which discriminated against racial minorities, as well as non-English language speaking voters.  Any discriminatory laws that suppressed  democratic participation by racial and language minorities was to be outlawed at the state level, with the enforcement coming from this federal statute.  

The other major provisions of the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and other intentional forms of voter disenfranchisement that were historically employed by states to restrict voter participation among racial and language minority groups. 

Section 4(b) and Section 5 were the most prominent provisions in addressing these issues. Section 4(b) and Section 5 each required certain jurisdictions to abide by pre-clearance requirements, which meant that states with historically discriminatory voting laws, were prohibited from changing their voting laws without obtaining pre approval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court.  But in 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the mandated inclusion or "coverage formula" that certain states and local jurisdictions could not change their laws without the approval of the U.S. Attorney General or U.S. District Court, was unconstitutiona. Moreover the court said it was , no longer necessary in today's United States.  Even though the Section 5 provision was not struck down by the Supreme Court, it became unenforceable, since Section 4(b) was a thing of the past.  

Immediately following the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 4(b), many state legislatures such as Texas and North Carolina, decided to move fast on enacting new voting rights laws.  The most prominent and most talked about of these new state laws were the ones that were passed quickly in Texas and in North Carolina.

Susan Lerner, the Executive Director of Common Cause NY, a voting rights watchdog advocacy group, spoke with WBAI's Linda Perry to discuss this new push by certain states to enact new voting legislation.  More specifically, she discusses how this new trend of voter ID laws shows how out of touch the Supreme Court was in its 2013 decision that Section 4(b) is no longer needed in today's United States of America.

"What has happened is that the U.S. previously in a very important part of the Voting Rights Act, had a pre-clearance requirement, which is that certain states - and New York was one of them - with districts where there are a significant number of non-English language voters, had to pre-clear any change any law to election law, to election procedure, redistricting, and so forth.  The U.S. Supreme Court knocked out the formula... the standard by which the clearance had to be determined.  It left the clearance procedure, but is basically said that in renewing the Voting Rights Act, with literally thousands of pages in testimony to show why the Voting Rights Act preclearance was still necessary in southern states and in northern states like New York.  The U.S. Supreme Court ignored the factual basis and said the formula; choosing which states have to pre-clear is based on past conduct and not current conduct, and therefore; yes... you have pre-clearance, but you don't have any states that are subject to it.
So when that was knocked out, we immediately saw a rash of terrible laws that were passed throughout the country primarily, unfortunately in the southern states, making radical changes to voting procedure and in some cases - requiring onerous voter ID.

And the laws that had been disallowed by the Department of Justice were now adopted by the states and the NAACP and Department of Justice have had to file suit state by state, attacking these laws.  While that is difficult and expensive, it can be successful.  On Wednesday, there was a ruling in the 5th Circuit that said Texas' highly restrictive voter ID requirement, the worst voter ID requirement in the country, violated The Voting Rights Act, Section 2.  That suit wouldn't have been necessary with pre-clearance because the Department of Justice wouldn't have permitted such a draconian law to stay on the books.
So the Voting Rights Advancement Act is plugging this hole in the law which the Supreme Court created, and which has encourage retrogressive state legislatures to throw unnecessary impediments in the way of voters."

Lerner continues, "The Supreme Court in its infinite wisdom said, 'Oh!  Discrimination is a thing of the past.  You have the wrong states which are subject to pre-clearance.  And southern states, California, New York, and also some northern states where you have non-English language voters who have been discriminated against in the past."

Common Cause NY is currently advocating for Congress to enact a Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would amend the original federal legislation, by reintroducing Section 4(b) and thus, re instituting the federal enforcement of Section 5.  
Lerner said, "We want to call on Congress to move voting rights forward by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act.  
It is an act which would amend the Voting Rights Act; the 50 year old act which has been renewed several times in response to what we believe was a wrongly decided U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court basically knocked out an important part of the Voting Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Advancement Act is designed to respond to that ruling and to modernized the formula used to determine which states need to have Department of Justice clearance for any changes to their voting procedures.

The new voter ID law in Texas requires voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to polling stations.  Accepted forms of identification can include a state driver's license, a U.S. passport, a concealed firearm license, or an election identification certificate.  

The Department of Justice, which has argued publicly against the 2013 Supreme Court Ruling, was a plaintiff (along with Common Cause) in the case against Texas' voter ID law.  The Justice Department said that this law and laws of this kind in other states, are discriminatory because poor people and minorities are disproportionately impacted by these measures.  Furthermore' poor people and minorities lack easy access to birth certificates and other forms of documentation that are needed to obtain these forms of government-issued identification.  

Texas' voter ID law deemed Student ID cards, voter registration cards, and utility balls as insufficient and unacceptable forms of personal identification. So as the Lone Star State becomes the center of this battle in voter participation, the 50th Year Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a standard bearer of federal legislation enacted on behalf of a greater democracy and a 'Great Society.'  But it is a reminder that this new push to enact and eventually pass voter ID laws in Texas, North Carolina, and across other states is a new frontier in the battle of inclusive democracy and voter disenfranchisement. 

President Obama alongside Representative John Lewis delivered remarks to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act in the South Court Auditorium at the White House. August 6, 2015.


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