The Voting Rights Act of 1965 Turns 50 Today. Here’s Why It’s Still Fighting for Survival

In the summer of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law federal legislation which aimed to tackle racial discrimination in voting. The Civil Rights Era had brought racial tensions to a head, and Black Americans were fighting alongside Asian and Latino citizens for equal treatment under the law. Described by the United States Justice Department as “the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress,” the Voting Rights Act of 1965 arrived at a time of harsh racial injustices, brought on by both individual vendettas against Blacks but also more insidiously by the institutionalized racism that many say remains prevalent today.

In today’s New York Times, political journalist Ari Berman shared his thoughts on today’s anniversary in a piece titled “Why the Voting Rights Act is Once Again Under Threat.” He begins his op-ed with a brief history lesson, outlining circumstances which led to thousands of eligible voters being turned away in places like North Carolina and Texas based on newly enacted, strict regulations. ” Voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by 2 to 3 percent during the 2012 election, enough to swing a close vote, with the highest drop-off among young, black and newly registered voters,” he writes. With the upcoming presidential election inching closer and closer (the first GOP debate airs tonight), the historical lessons ostensibly learned over the half-century since its passing have brought the Voting Rights Act back into the forefront, and the prognosis is not great.

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Defiance in the face of the Act’s passage has been steady and consistent since 1965 but Berman brings into particular focus the post-Y2K climate to shed light on why the Voting Rights Act continues to be challenged. Voting became more difficult for African-Americans “after the 2000 election, when a botched voter purge in Florida, while Jeb Bush was governor, disproportionately prevented African-Americans from voting and helped George W. Bush win the White House.” Fast forward a decade, and once again access to the most democratic of all practices became caught up in bureaucratic red tape, according to Berman. “After the Tea Party’s triumph in the 2010 elections” he writes, “half the states, nearly all of them under Republican control, passed new voting restrictions, which disproportionately targeted the core of President Obama’s coalition, particularly minority voters.” These restrictions, meant to maintain the status quo and to prevent a disruption in the Conservative approach to legislation, seemed to backfire and in 2012, “the percentage of blacks who turned out to vote exceeded that of whites.”

That triumph, however, proved to be short-lived and soon thereafter, the Supreme Court was presiding over Shelby County v. Holder, a case which argued that two provisions in the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed, and after its decision, “laws that were previously stopped under the act, like Texas’ strict voter ID law, immediately went into effect, while new states rushed to pass tougher voting restrictions,” according to Berman. While the Justice Department and various civil-rights groups are fighting the decision, the stark reality is that Shelby County v. Holder represents just one law in one state (North Carolina). Berman argues that “the voting rights landscape today most closely resembles the period before 1965, when the blight of voting discrimination could be challenged only on a torturous case-by-case basis.”

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As a solution, he puts forth the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, a bill introduced into Congress in June. If passed, the bill would “compel states with a recent history of voting discrimination to once again clear election changes with the federal government and would require approval for specific measures that often target minority voters today.” While that sounds like a promising alternative, Berman reminds us that Congress has yet to schedule a hearing, let alone a motion to vote it through.

A half a century later, it seems that much of the racial progress made in this country remains superficial, if not sluggishly slow. The true power of a Democracy rests, at least in theory, in the hands of the voter. But what happens when those hands are bound? Surely, there are more Americans of color visible in positions of great leadership than there were in 1965, but in more cases than not, those positions are reached in a political climate dictated overwhelmingly by white voters. In 2004, Diddy vowed to rally African-American interest in voting, implementing the powerful slogan of “Vote or Die.” More than ten years later, was the movement successful? In just 15 months, Americans will return to the ballot boxes to vote for their next president, but without the votes of the most disenfranchised among us, do the results really count?

Read: “Why the Voting Rights Act Is Once Again Under Threat” by Ari Berman at the New York Times

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