VOICES: Voting rights protections still necessary

Judith A. Browne-Dianis, Advancement ProjectCivil rights advocates and those on the side of democracy are letting out a sigh of relief today: the U.S. Supreme Court left intact the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In a case involving a utility district in Austin, Texas, the Supreme Court, voting 8-to-1, rejected an invitation to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that prevents enactment of discriminatory voting laws and practices. This decision is a victory for democracy, but we must not lose sight of the obstacles to voting that persist.

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in voting. This law was, of course, premised upon decades of disenfranchisement of African Americans through use of tools such as poll taxes, grandfather clauses, brute violence and intimidation of voters, especially in the South. This sordid history is marked by the deaths of voting rights activists such as Medgar Evers and Harry T. Moore, and some of those who travelled to Mississippi during Freedom Summer and who joined the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Finally, President Johnson signed the Act into law, not only prohibiting the discriminatory tools of the past but also requiring that states and some locales with a history of discrimination would need approval before enacting voting changes.

In recent years, the Voting Rights Act has been instrumental in protecting voters from blatant and clandestine schemes that work to disenfranchise voters of color. While we have written a new script in our history with the election of an African-American president, discrimination still exists and must be weeded out.

Not too long ago, our country experienced a voting rights catastrophe. In the 2000 presidential election, African-American voters, especially in Florida, found themselves dropped from the voting rolls in unprecedented numbers, and showed up to polling places that had been moved without notice. More recently, enforcement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited Georgia from maintaining an electronic system for verifying voter eligibility that was chockfull of errors leading to the rejection of voters' applications without additional information. African-American, Latino and Asian would-be voters were more likely than white voters to be placed on a list to bear additional hurdles to voting. In fact, African-Americans were sixty percent more likely to be on this list than white registrants. This unequal pattern of disenfranchisement led the U.S. Department of Justice to refuse the continued implementation of the system.

Then in 2006, Congress was faced with re-authorizing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and found no dearth of evidence to support its vote to do so. With thousands and thousands of pages of recent incidents of voting discrimination, Congress voted to support the extension of the law for another 25 years. As a result, the places with both a history of voting discrimination and present-day incidents must continue to seek approval for voting changes. This not only stops enactment of discriminatory practices but also serves as a deterrent to the proposal of such practices. Without such checks and balances under the Voting Rights Act, our democracy would be undermined by restricting full and equal participation.

The Supreme Court left the law in place to prevent the use of discriminatory voting practices; and thus, those who lost their lives to protect the franchise did not do so in vein. But aggressive enforcement of the law is critical. "Structural disenfranchisement" persists as the modern equivalent of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests - quietly invidious, but equally destructive to the bedrock of our democracy.

Advancement Project's continuing voter protection work with local groups throughout the country indicates that the cumulative effect of multiple problems and breakdowns in election systems, structural disenfranchisement results in millions of Americans being denied their right to vote.

The bottom line is this: even though the most overt forms of disenfranchisement have been outlawed, structural disenfranchisement continues to perpetuate inequity and exclusion. In today's equivalent of the poll tax, there is no one guilty actor and rarely smoking gun evidence of discriminatory motive. Instead, inequity is built into the system, encompassing conspicuous failures to comply with the "Motor Voter" law in public assistance agencies and disparate allocation of voting machines in communities of color. Today's decision paves the way for us to continue to stamp out unlawful practices that keep us from the true promise of our democracy.

Judith Browne-Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

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