The Voting Rights Act Turns 40

This month 40 years ago, Aug. 6 to be exact, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally was enacted into law after a century of congressional stonewalling on fully implementing the 15th Amendment and granting full suffrage to African-Americans. Prior to enactment of that law, some states in the South had used poll taxes, literacy tests and outright intimidation to deny blacks their legal right to vote. The Voting Rights Act put an end to those abuses. It abolished poll taxes and literacy tests and effectively prohibited any voting practice that would abridge the right to vote on the basis of race. The law also provided for criminal and civil sanctions against individual who interfered with the right to vote.

Congress finally enacted the Voting Rights Act largely in response to public outrage at the murder of voting rights activists, both white and black, and the unprovoked police violence visited on peaceful voting-rights advocates marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., an event that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday." When marchers, led by the courageous John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama state troopers attacked the peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, tear gas and bullwhips, resulting in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot while attempting to protect his mother from being beaten by police.

"We were beaten, tear-gassed and trampled by horses," recalled Lewis.

The 1965 law empowered the federal government to oversee voter registration in counties using discriminatory tests and in counties that had low minority turnout rates in the 1964 presidential election. The impact of the law was immediate. It’s hard to imagine today, but just 40 years ago discrimination against African-Americans was so pervasive that there were many counties in the Deep South where no black people voted, period. Within four years of the law’s enactment, black registration in Mississippi rose from 7 percent to 60 percent. While only 19 percent of eligible black voters were actually registered to vote in Alabama in 1965, today 74 percent are registered.

In order to prevent new forms of voter restrictions, the law has been renewed four times. In 1975, the law was expanded to require bilingual ballots in areas with high concentrations of foreign-speaking citizens. In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was extended to cover the rights of voters with disabilities.

Section 5, the so-called "temporary" or "special" provisions, which gave the federal government extraordinary "emergency" powers to eliminate voter discrimination, even had to be used in some parts of the North. This part of the statute required nine states and 66 counties in seven others with a long history of voter discrimination to pre-clear all voting procedures and laws, including redistricting plans and moving a polling station, with the U.S. Department of Justice. That section originally was intended to last no more than about five years because of its extraordinary nature, in effect pre-empting the Constitution’s vesting of voting laws and procedures. I agree with Lewis, however, that problems remain, and Section 5 should be reauthorized in 2007 when it expires.

I hope partisanship does not taint the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act as it seems to be infecting so many other areas these days. Democratic Chairman Howard Dean already has tried to use the upcoming reauthorization of the act to portray Republicans as "hypocrites" on race. Such demagoguery is preposterous on its face, it’s unconscionable and it must stop.

commemoration of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and I can attest he is sincere in his desire to reauthorize the act and guarantee all American citizens their right to vote. Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman spoke to the NAACP recently, giving a mea culpa and rejecting the "Southern Strategy" earlier employed by the party. Moreover, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has committed the administration to working closely with the Congress to reauthorize the act when it expires in 2007.

It should be obvious to all men and women of goodwill that the Bush administration and the Republican Party are sincere in their desire and intention to see all vestiges of voter discrimination eliminated.