The Voting Rights Act at 45.

As we approach the 2010 elections let’s say a grateful word about the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. The Voting Rights Act put the full force of the federal government behind the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, enacted in 1870 to declare that the right of US citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the US or by any State on account of race or color (or previous condition of servitude). Considering the least progressive among us have always LOVED a strict construction of the Constitution, oddly enough, the 15th Amendment was of nothing to the states and local municipalities whose imaginations ran wild in their drive to prevent black citizens from voting.

In the face of the 15th Amendment, the United States gerrymandered election districts to marginalize black voting strength and re-establish white political supremacy. Poll taxes, literacy tests, white primaries, vouchers of good character, disqualification for crimes of moral turpitude, and so-called “color-blind” laws, procedures, and practices were extant across the country….not only the South. The continuing objective was to exclude blacks from electoral access and meaningful participation in the political process.

The federal government made efforts to beat back these shameful practices but those efforts were, of procedural necessity, one lawsuit at a time. This was expensive and time-consuming, since it was decades before Law and Order’s Dick Wolf worked out how to bring a crime to trial and verdict within sixty minutes.

Then on March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers assaulted peaceful desegregation marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, making their way to the state capitol in Montgomery. Finally, after decades of tremendous loss and shame capped by the tragic events of March 7, Congress, at the behest of President Johnson, passed the Voting Rights Act.

The Act reinforced the 15th Amendment, adding a nationwide prohibition against use of literacy tests to prevent access to the polls. Importantly, the Act gave special enforcement powers (referred to as Section 5 powers) to the US Attorney General, targeting areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination was the greatest. These select areas could not implement any changes affecting voting until the Attorney General or the US District Court for the District of Columbia determined the change would not have discriminatory effect. The Act also gave the Attorney General power to impose a federal examiner in counties where there was reason to believe people were being unlawfully prevented from registering to vote, and election monitors in those same counties to ensure access to the polls. Today, we see some states chafing (aka grandstanding) against the new healthcare mandates. Imagine being a segregationist under a federal microscope, complete with federal interlopers reviewing your voter rolls and staring you down at your polling places. The Voting Rights Act demonstrated the time for one person – one vote had arrived.

In 2006, the Voting Rights Act was renewed by Congress because, while there has been significant progress in unfettered voting access to people of color, some localities remain vulnerable to race-based disenfranchisement.

Happy 45th, Voting Rights Act! We members of the League of Women Voters support you in your work, with our unstinting commitment to free and fair elections for all US citizens. LLII.

(With acknowledgement and thanks to Benjamin E. Griffith for his writing regarding the Voting Rights Act, published in The Young Lawyer, volume 14, number 6, April 2010, by the American Bar Association, Young Lawyers Division.)

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