51 years ago today, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of federal legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
The Act contains numerous provisions that regulate election administration. The Act’s “general provisions” provide nationwide protections for voting rights. Section 2 is a general provision that prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Other general provisions specifically outlaw literacy tests and similar devices that were historically used to disenfranchise racial minorities.
You would think that if there’s a law that is specifically meant to prohibit racial discrimination in voting, then such discrimination shouldn’t be an issue.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Many states have enacted laws over the years that in one way or another have disenfranchised the voting rights of minorities.
Fortunately, the past couple of weeks, as one voting rights advocate put it, has “been like Christmas Day”, in terms of court rulings related to voting rights.
Supporters of voter ID laws have argued they are necessary to prevent voter fraud. But in their responses, judges consistently highlighted the rarity of voter fraud.
On July 20, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ voter ID law had a discriminatory impact on voters, and ordered a lower court to come up with a fix before elections in November. It’s “probably the strictest voter identification law in the country,” as NPR’s Pam Fessler puts it, and activists say it disproportionately impacts black and Hispanic voters.
On July 29, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned North Carolina’s sweeping voter ID law (which included a host of other voting restrictions, including shortening the early voting period and banning same-day registration). The court wrote that the changes to the voting process “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
In Wisconsin, U.S. District Judge James Peterson wrote: “The evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence. The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”
Last week, a judge ruled that Kansas citizens must be allowed to vote in state and local elections, even if they didn’t show proof of citizenship when they registered.
And this past Monday, a federal judge blocked a law requiring photo ID to vote in North Dakota, ruling that the law unfairly burdens Native Americans in the state.
It is significant that these rulings were made in advance of this November’s election, making it easier for thousands, if not millions of people, mostly minorities, to have their voice heard.
While such rulings are good news, it’s a shame that it had ever gotten that far. Voting laws grating minorities the right to vote in the U.S. go all the way back to the Fourteenth ad Fifteenth Amendments, which were passed in 1868 and 1870, respectively. Almost 100 years later those rights were confirmed with the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
And now it’s 51 years since later; why are the voting rights of minorities still an issue?