Wednesday, August 05, 2015

At 50 The Voting Rights Act is Under GOP Assault

When I arrived in Virginia to begin college at the University of Virginia I was shocked to see the remnants of segregation all around me with the vestiges of separate rest rooms and water fountains for blacks still plainly visible - the blacks always got to use the inferior facilities.  Things have improved markedly in the intervening years in large party because of desegregation laws and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.   In recent years, however, the protections of the Voting Rights Act are under constant attack by Republicans who seek to disenfranchise as many potential Democrat voters - read minorities in particular - through voter ID laws that claim to be aimed at voter fraud even though little or no evidence of any such fraud exists.  Controlling women's bodies and keeping blacks from voting are twin pillars of the Virginia GOP.  The New York Times looks at the accomplishments and threats to the Voting Rights Act on its 50th anniversary.  Here are highlights:

For the first 48 years of its existence, the Voting Rights Act — signed by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago this week — was one of the most popular and effective civil rights laws in American history. Centuries of slavery, segregation and officially sanctioned discrimination had kept African-Americans from having any real voice in the nation’s politics. Under the aggressive new law, black voter registration and turnout soared, as did the number of black elected officials.

Recognizing its success, Congress repeatedly reaffirmed the act and expanded its protections. The last time, in 2006, overwhelming majorities in both houses extended the law for another 25 years. But only seven years later, in 2013, five Supreme Court justices elbowed in and concluded, on scant evidence, that there was no longer a need for the law’s most powerful tool; the Voting Rights Act, they claimed, had done its job.

In truth, the battle for voting rights has had to be unrelenting, and the act itself has been under constant assault from the start. As Ari Berman writes in his new history of the law, “Give Us the Ballot,” the act’s revolutionary success “spawned an equally committed group of counterrevolutionaries” who have aimed to dismantle the central achievements of the civil rights movement.

Today there are no poll taxes or literacy tests. Instead there are strict and unnecessary voter-identification requirements, or cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration — all of which are known to disproportionately burden black voters.

The relative subtlety of the newer measures does not make them any less insidious. But it does make them more resistant to charges of illegality.

H.B. 589, that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed in a duplicitous maneuver only weeks after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling. The law rolled back 15 years of voting rights measures, including same-day registration, which 90,000 North Carolinians used in 2012; a week of early voting used by 900,000; out-of-precinct registration; and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

If North Carolina were under federal supervision, as much of the state had been before the Supreme Court’s ruling, H.B. 589 would almost surely have been blocked for its disproportionate impact on black voters, who tend to vote Democratic. But because of the ruling, the state’s legislators were free to impose a raft of restrictions based on bogus claims of electoral integrity and efficiency. The legislators refused to testify at trial.

This demonstrates the need for the Voting Rights Act’s supervision scheme, which the Supreme Court eliminated. If there was any question that the court had misjudged the reality on the ground, it was answered by the speed with which North Carolina, Texas and other states moved to impose discriminatory new voting laws.

In North Carolina, as in many places around the country that are determined to undermine the right to vote, the past is far from over.

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