Why We Should Expand the Voting Rights Act Instead of Dismantling It

Posted on November 14, 2012

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***This is the first of potentially several entries reflecting on the 2012 Election. 

 

“I want to thank every American who participated in this election…whether you voted for the first time or waiting in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that.”[1]

– President Barack Obama, in his victory speech.

President Obama’s recognition of Americans’ struggles while voting seemed unexpected, even with all of the news reports about long lines, defective voter machines, and other voter irregularities.[2] What is even more astonishing, and at this point, pretty tone deaf, is that the Supreme Court may hear another case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. [3] Shelby County, Alabama aspires to have the provision overturned on the grounds that it is archaic and unnecessary in an “American that elected and reelected Barack Obama as its first African-American president.”[4] Section 5 forces particular states with histories of voter disenfranchisement to seek “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before changing voting rules. Conservative justices, according to Adam Serwer writing for Mother Jones, argue that the law discriminates against white southerners despite the fact that Section 5 applies to “all or parts of” Western and Northern states such as New York, New Hampshire, California, and Arizona, nor does it single out white individuals. States and “political subdivisions” are the regulated entities.[5]

Yet, after the numerous accounts of Americans struggling to vote due to long lines, decreased days of early voting, ridiculously long and tedious ballots (i.e. Florida), and the institution of new voter ID laws—all of this amounts to legalized voter suppression—it seems that Congress was right to extend pieces of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. Also, with the 2012 election and the Supreme Court’s willingness to hear another case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, I would argue that the Voting Rights Act needs to be strengthened and expanded in the most ambitious manner.

Where did the Voting Rights Act Come From?

It is possible that many Americans may have forgotten the significance of the Voting Rights Act. Since Reconstruction, many white southerners fought to systematically restrict the voting rights of blacks through poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and even through violent intimidation. The black struggle for voting rights that ensued is well documented by historians. But, on August 6, 1965, a hundred people gathered in the President’s Room in the Capitol Building to watch President Lyndon Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act at the height of the civil rights movement.[6] The Voting Rights Act of 1965 strengthened the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—barring any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure” established “by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”[7] Thus it prohibited literacy tests and poll taxes in national elections. This landmark piece of legislation opened America’s electoral system to African Americans and the nation’s people of color, especially those living in the old Confederate states. The Voting Rights Act not only allowed disfranchised blacks Americans to vote, but it also enabled blacks and others to win elective office.

President Johnson signed the bill almost five months after the infamous “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) set out to march from Selma to Montgomery. While African Americans had struggled for the right to vote and participate in the political process since the end of Reconstruction, the brutal violence perpetrated by Selma’s white police force galvanized support for new voting rights legislation. Now, forty-seven years later, some opponents of the Voting Rights Act contend that it is no longer needed due to civil rights gains and the “absence of” legalized discrimination. Unsurprisingly, most of those who have challenged the law since have been officials from the old Confederacy.

But those current Republican (mostly white) officials like Rick Scott of Florida, who seem to govern more like the segregationist Democrats of old, have found ways to dilute the voting strength of people of color since the passage of the 1965 law.  At particular moments, Republicans in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and others have relied on gerrymandering (which at times does create black-friendly districts), and more recently, voter ID laws, registration purges in the name of “preventing fraud,” and felon disenfranchisement. Some Republicans have also practiced deception (like deliberately misinforming voters about the day of the election) and subtle forms of intimidation like the displaying of billboards “reminding” drivers and pedestrians that voting fraud is a felony in areas where people of color predominate. Even employers have gotten into the game of voter intimidation—threatening their employees with layoffs if they do not vote for a particular candidate.[8] These are a few reasons why we need an expanded voting rights act.[9]

Strengthening the Voting Rights Act, Expanding Democracy:

As I have stated, one main argument against extending the Voting Rights Act is that it is antiquated since most States and “political Subdivisions” could not legally bar someone from voting on the account of race and color. Some may also point to the toothless Help America Vote Act of 2002 that would supposedly prevent another “hanging chad” election. But voter discrimination based upon race and class has not gone out of style, it has just manifested itself in a late-20th and early-21st century manner. Consequently, we need to maintain and strengthen the Voting Rights Act. So what are some elements of a more robust and updated voting rights policy that I would consider?

Nationalize national elections:

“Nationalizing national elections” is purposefully redundant. Why should state governments, subject to the political whims of either party, control national elections? A stronger Voting Rights Act should call for the establishment of a federally-funded, independent, and nonpartisan board to oversee national elections. This board should construct a standard national ballot that is legible to all who seek to vote. States could retain control over state and local elections, but the ballots should not necessarily be the same, although this may prompt states to construct ballots that are more consistent with national ones. Also, an updated Voting Rights Act would also prohibit excessively long ballots, thus cutting down on time, confusion, and counting. And, if the members of the board are to represent particular political parties, then Democrats and Republicans should not be the only parties represented. True, we may have to think of how to establish representation for other groups, but there is no reason why the Green Party should not have their own member, same with the Libertarians. I know the Help America Vote Act created an “election assistance commission” to help administer elections, but Congress did not provide it with the proper resources to be effective.

Give back the franchise to felons:

According to the prisoner advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, nearly six million Americans are disenfranchised due to felony convictions.[10] As a result, one of every thirteen African Americans are denied their voting rights. Reenfranchising felons is also part of a larger project/movement to address the deep structural inequalities in the U.S. criminal justice system. One would think if someone had paid their debt to society, they should not have to continue to endure political marginalization. Political participation is a crucial part of social and political reintegration. Those governing the criminal justice system should move to rehabilitate, not to discriminate.

Worker protections:

Workers would need protection in voting rights reform. No employer should threaten (or even insinuate) their employees jobs if they do not vote for a particular candidate. This is shameful, nakedly coercive, and it should be punishable by a fine at the very least. Workers should be able to seek recourse with the Justice Department if they feel threatened by their employer. Congress should devise stiff financial penalties and the Department of Justice should enforce them. Monies from fines should be deposited into a fund for the board to fund future elections.

Early voting and Election Day:

Voting rights reform would establish early voting during the month of October for all 50 states and make Election Day a (paid?) holiday. Both of these provisions could help prevent long lines and the implicit tax on time that all working Americans may endure if they choose to vote on Election Day.

Universal and same day voter registration:

I know I have an option to register to vote when I renew my automobile registration. All Americans should have the opportunity to register to vote once they turn 18, either when the sign up for selective service, apply for college financial aid, or enroll in college. Many of us have to register for the draft, but not to vote?

Continued use of computer voting and experiment with internet voting?

The Help American Vote Act also called for more computerized voting systems, but they have not been perfected. A federally-funded election board should charge itself to fund more voting machines as a means of cutting down on lines. This may be a pipe dream, here, but why could the federal government not construct a secure website where citizens should log in with their voter registration information and vote in a national election from there? Voting from home would prevent the elderly from having to endure long lines and it would allow those with disability issues to vote from the confines of their own home. That would beat voting absentee.

Conclusion

I am well aware that I have not submitted a comprehensive list of suggestions for strengthening the voting rights for all Americans. Yet, as many of us may have experienced, or heard, it is imperative to protect the existing Voting Rights Act, improve the voting day experience, and to institute crucial reforms, like felon reenfranchisement, where needed. Of course, some on the right may argue that nationalizing the process would create corruption (as if leaving it up to the states does not) and some on the left may contend that the U.S. electoral system is one that is not really worth reforming, unless we are talking about dismantling the two party duopoly. I tend to sympathize with the latter. I would maintain, however, that working on improving the actual experience of voting, reenfranchising felons, and protecting the franchise could open the door to conversations about campaign finance reform, overturning Citizen’s United, and expanding the party system.[11] I am not a starry-eyed liberal or progressive who romanticizes the act of voting. Protecting and expanding the franchise (whether one chooses to exercise it on Voting Day or not) is paramount because electoral politics is a tool, not an end—one could use it as a weapon to hold public officials accountable and to make crucial decisions about one’s livelihood. It also serves as a vital instrument of political education and organizing. Due to these possibilities and this country’s history of discrimination, voting is a fundamental right worth protecting as long as we continue to vote periodically.


[1] “Transcript—Obama’s Victory Speech,” CNN.com, 7 November, 2013,  http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/11/07/transcript-obamas-victory-speech/, accessed 13 November 2012.

[2] “Election 2012:  Voting Issues Emerge,” Christian Science Monitor, 6 November 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2012/1106/Election-2012-Voting-issues-emerge, accessed 13 November 2012.

[3] “Supreme Court Appears Ready to Nuke the Voting Rights Act,” Mother Jones, 9 November 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2012/11/supreme-court-ready-nuke-voting-rights-act, accessed 13 November 2012.

[4] Quoted in “Supreme Court ready to review law on minority voting rights,” Reuters, 9 November 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/09/us-usa-court-voting-law-idUSBRE8A81G920121109, accessed 13 November 2012.

[5] “Supreme Court Appears Ready to Nuke the Voting Rights Act”; The United States Department of Justice, “Frequently Asked Questions,”  U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Voting Section, http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/misc/faq.php#faq07, accessed 13 November 2012.

[6] “Johnson signs voting rights bill, orders immediate enforcement; 4 suits will challenge poll tax,” The New York Times, 7 August 1965.

[7] Our Documents Initiative, “Transcript of Voting Rights Act (1965),” http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=100&page=transcript, accessed 13 November 2012.

[8] I even seen one of these billboards while on a research trip in Cleveland, Ohio. See “Ohio voter fraud billboard coming down,” Washington Post Election 2012 Blog, 23 October 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/10/23/ohio-voter-fraud-felony-billboard-coming-down/, accessed 13 November 2012;  “As election nears, efforts intensify to misinform, pressure voters,” Reuters, 24 October 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/24/us-usa-campaign-voters-idUSBRE89N07M20121024, accessed 13 November 2012.

[9] We also need to revamp our political system, generally. The two-party system does us more of a disservice, but that conversation demands a separate article.

[10] “Felony Disenfranchisement,” The Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=133, accessed 13 November 2012.

[11] Like I said, this begs for another conversation about the whole system rather than the act of voting, which is what this piece really focuses on. From there we could talk about how presidential politics represents a double-edged blade—on the one hand, electoral politics may have helped labor unions gain more strength, on the other, presidential politics tends to overwhelm more transformative politics on the margins like the Occupy movement. This discussion would prompt one to ask the question that many leftists have posed since the civil rights movement—is electoral politics a viable political strategy for the left or a diversion? I really do not see improving voters’ experiences on Election Day as totally antithetical to thinking of ways to transform the political system since, 1.) Obviously, not everyone shares the same political beliefs as I, and, 2.) Voting is a fundamental right that is worth protecting as long as we vote periodically and if/when leftists want to engage in electoral politics.

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