Voting Rights Act

Bill in Brief

The scoop

Parts of the Voting Rights Act - a center-piece of the Civil Rights movement first passed in 1965 to protect blacks' right to vote - were up for reauthorization in 2007. It was smooth sailing for re-passage until June 2006, when House members objected to renewing the act's strict oversight rules for select Southern states that - historically - had a rep for discrimination. The renewal bill got pulled from the floor, but returned in July - with all the oversight rules in tact - and ended up being passed in the House. The Senate followed suit in late July, sending the Voting Rights Act to the president's desk where the act got a final okay and another 25 years of life.

About the Voting Rights Act (DOJ)

Most accounts like to start off describing the Voting Rights Act is the "most successful" federal civil rights law ever passed. (Why should we be any different.)

Even though the 15th Amendment (1870) said you couldn't deny someone the right to vote based on race or color, before the Voting Rights Act many states and counties effectively kept African Americans out of the polls by requiring literacy tests or other bars to voting, such as vouchers of "moral character." As fast as federal prosecutors could go to the courts charging discrimination, according to the Justice Department, states and counties would just turn around and pass new laws to keep blacks from the voting booth.

The Voting Rights Act got a grip on racial discrimination by banning all pre-voting tests, literacy or other, (Section 2 of the act) and by putting a tight leash on states and counties that the feds said had a history of discrimination at the polls (sections 4 and 5). That leash kept those states and counties from changing any voting law without first getting a federal okay and also gave the attorney general the power to put federal "examiners" and "observers" in place to oversee the voting practices in their districts. (See the DOJ's site for a map and list of covered areas.)

The act was reauthorized in 1970, 1975 (adding protections for language minorities) and 1982 (giving counties a way to get off the strict oversight list).

What's up for reauthorization

Sections 4 and 5, which outline the special oversight treatment for select areas, are set to phase out in 2007 unless reauthorized, as is part 203, added in 1975, which assures non-English speakers access to voting information in their language. Section 2, which outlaws literacy tests and gives the feds the power to stop poll taxes, will not expire; it's around for good.

Note: what follows is a look at the debate brought up by House members who didn't like the act's special oversight rules - as well as other objections to the act's translation requirements and general usefulness. Since the bill ended up being passed in tact, the debate is now moot - but is still included here for sentamentalism's and curiosity's sakes.

Special treatment for Southern states? (Bronx, but not Staten Island too)

The Southern lawmakers who want to rework VRA before okaying it say the act is outdated; it unfairly singles out Southern states because of discrimination that was going on 40 years ago. (Note: although critics of the bill are mostly in the South, some Northern districts - including 3 in NYC - are also on the fed oversight list.) Times have changed, they argue: in many of those states more blacks are registered to vote than whites. Over the past ten years, the feds have objected to fewer than 1% of the voting changes proposed in those states. The law was useful when first enacted, critics say, but it's out-lived its purpose; now it's just a stigmatizing bureaucratic burden. Critcs vote either to change the law so it micromanages states less - by making it necessary to get federal approval for major voting changes only - or, more radically, to either dump the special treatment for select areas entirely or make the strict rules apply to all states. (Spectator, AEI)

Those who prefer to keep VRA as is agree that there have been great strides in in the South - but, they say, that's because of the VRA, which is an argument for keeping it around. For areas that show a strong record of turning around their old discriminatory ways, supporters of VRA mention, there's already a way to get off the special treatment list - and, indeed, 8 counties and 3 cities in Virginia have already done so. Meanwhile, it's unrealistic to say that VRA oversight rules should apply to all states since such strict oversight is only justified as a remedy of past discrimination; it would make no sense to put states without a persistent history of discrimination under such a lens. Lastly, they argue that the burden on states is small compared to the benefit and that, although, examples of discrimination are fewer, they still exist. (Davis, Johnson Sisters, Page)

Votar aqui

A second - more ideological - debate over the Voting Rights Act circles around part 203, which gives citizens the right to see voting information in their native language. Those who would like to see 203 drop say it's important to preserve a common political language - and that, at least until further notice, English is where it's at. Supporters of 203 point out that it never hurts to give citizens information they understand to help them participate in the voting process.

Gerrymandering on the side

A related debate that bubbles up around the Voting Rights Act is the question of gerrymandering - and how much court efforts to redraw district lines to protect minority voters helps or hurts those minorities. "Gerrymandering" is a term originally used to describe the funky rejiggering of district lines political parties like to indulge in to make sure they get the maximum amount of politicians elected to office. Although gerrymandering is widely criticized, it's not illegal - unless it dilutes minority votes. The problem today, some argue, is that the courts have been so good about making sure black districts don't get diluted, that they've created a reverse-gerrymandering phenomenon of keeping white districts undiluted too. Unfortunately, this is too wide and complex of a issue for cJ to sift through in a paragraph; luckily, we don't think we have to since the part of the Voting Rights Act that protects against gerrymandering is not currently being contested in Congress.

Some facts

To put the debate over special treatment of Southern states in perspective, cJ looked at how the nation as a whole is doing when it comes to white vs. minority registration and how the six original Section 5 states are doing today - both in terms of voter registration and number of their proposed voting changes the feds find objectionable.

source: Census (table IV.A.1)

How the original Section 5 states (those under fed's supervision) compare - % of black and white citizens registered to vote (2000)


the number of voting changes recommended by Section 5 states that the feds find objectionable


Updated July 24, 2006

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