LBJ and MLK at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
Within the past two or three hours, I’ve received three releases marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act — from Jim Clyburn, the Hillary Clinton campaign and the S.C. Democratic Party.
Unfortunately, none of these communications are as celebratory as they should be. They’re all, “the Voting Rights Act is great, but our rights are in terrible danger.”
Which is a shame, because the Act deserves an unqualified hurrah.
Clyburn’s release is typical:
CLYBURN STATEMENT ON 50TH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965
WASHINGTON – U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (SC) released the following statement on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965:
“On this day fifty years ago, surrounded by leaders of both political parties, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. It was a moment worthy of both celebration and reflection. Today, we stand at a similar crossroads.
“The right to vote is the cornerstone of democracy and the foundation upon which all other rights are built. Nearly a century after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which protected the franchise in theory but not in fact, the world watched as peaceful protesters were brutally attacked and beaten by police while marching for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Just five months later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, and millions of African Americans were finally able to exercise their right to vote.
“Sadly, in 2015, this fundamental right is under threat yet again. Two years ago, the Supreme Court gutted a key component of the Voting Rights Act and made it easier for states to discriminate against minority, elderly and disabled Americans by deliberately making it harder for them to exercise their right to vote. Republican leaders in Congress have thus far refused to take up bipartisan legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, as states continue to erect new barriers to the ballot box.
“Today, as we celebrate the proud legacy of the Voting Rights Act and reflect on symbolic victories like the furling of the Confederate battle flag in my home state of South Carolina, we must also take substantive action to restore the Voting Rights Act. I call on my Republican colleagues in Congress to do more than issue statements celebrating the past—I urge them to look to the future and work with us to protect the voting rights of all Americans for the next fifty years and beyond.”
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No Democrat, it seems, can mention the Act without also bemoaning either of the following, or both: The first is the Supreme Court opinion that lifted the onerous burden from some jurisdictions (and not others, which is key) to get advance approval from the Justice Department before proceeding with any change to its local laws bearing on voting. The second is the ongoing efforts by Republicans to require picture IDs to vote.
What the Supreme Court did was rule on the constitutionality of two provisions in the Act:
Section 5, which requires certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices; and Section 4(b), which contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.
On June 25, 2013, the Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that Section 4(b) is unconstitutional because the coverage formula is based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states. The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without Section 4(b), no jurisdiction will be subject to Section 5 preclearance unless Congress enacts a new coverage formula.
… which makes sense to me. What did NOT make sense, what was unfair, was the presumption of guilt of anyone residing within particular geographical areas, based on what other people did or did not do 40 years previously.
Why should these jurisdictions not be governed by the law in the same way that all the other jurisdictions in the country were: by getting in trouble if they actually violated the law, rather than having to get advance permission to act based on a presumption of guilt?
As for the Voter ID laws: As I’ve expressed many times before, I find the positions of both the Republicans and Democrats unpersuasive. The Republicans fail to convince me that there’s this huge fraud problem that we need such laws to address, and the Democrats fail to persuade me that the ID requirement is an onerous burden.
I’ll say this for the Democrats: Between the two positions, theirs (that barriers to voting should be low) sounds way nobler than the Republicans’ (that certain people — a category Republicans would describe, unconvincingly, as people trying to vote fraudulently — should be prevented from voting).
But the bottom line, of course, is that one strongly suspects that on a certain level Republicans want these laws because they think they will increase their chances of winning elections, and Democrats oppose them because they think the Republicans are right about that.
In any case, couldn’t we have just one day in which we celebrate a good thing without adulterating the celebration with another reminder of how awful we think those OTHER people are?
So let’s hear it for the Voting Rights Act: Hip-hip…