Just 40 years ago, on a bridge outside Selma, Ala., civil rights leaders and activists took to the streets in a peaceful protest for voting rights for African-Americans. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery, they were met with clubs, snarling dogs and violence. They were beaten and many severely injured.
But the activists did not march in vain. On Aug. 6, 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, hailed by many as perhaps the most important civil rights law enacted since the Emancipation Proclamation.
The most fundamental right of our democratic system of government is this right of citizens to participate in the political process. The 15th Amendment ensures the right of every American citizen, regardless of race, color or "previous condition of servitude," to participate in the electoral process. However, some local governments have actively and in some cases aggressively tried to disenfranchise African-American and minority voters.
Congress needs to renew the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which are coming up for reauthorization next year and which ensure that our nation’s government reflects the views, the values and, most importantly, the votes of the people it serves.
Of all the civil rights legislation that the nation has enacted over the past four decades, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is arguably the most important. Yes, every major piece of civil rights legislation has helped to eliminate injustices, but the Voting Rights Act empowers Americans to take action against injustices by electing those who pledge to eliminate them and removing those who perpetuate them.
Before the Voting Rights Act became law, African-Americans in the South were prevented from voting by a battery of tactics – poll taxes, literacy tests and the crudest forms of intimidation. From the Southwest to some urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest, Latinos were discouraged from voting by techniques that exploited the vulnerabilities of low-income newcomers for whom English was a second language. Both groups were also the targets of districting designed to dilute their ability to elect officials of their own choosing – a fundamental freedom that too many Americans take for granted.
It is important that Congress renew all three provisions that are set to expire: Section 5, which requires federal approval for proposed changes in voting or election procedures in areas with a history of discrimination; Section 203, which requires some jurisdictions to provide assistance in other languages to voters who are not literate or fluent in English; and the portions of Sections 6-9 of the Act that authorize the federal government to send federal election examiners and observers to certain jurisdictions covered by Section 5, where there is evidence of attempts to intimidate minority voters at the polls.
The Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 1970 and 1975. In both of these reauthorizations Congress heard extensive testimony concerning the ways in which voting electorates were manipulated through gerrymandering, annexations, adoption of at-large elections and other structural changes to prevent newly registered black voters from effectively using the ballot. Congress also heard testimony about voting discrimination suffered by Hispanic, Asian and American Indian citizens. The 1975 amendments added protections from voting discrimination for minority-language citizens.
In 1982 the act was amended and Section 5 was reauthorized through 2007. Congress also adopted a new standard, which went into effect in 1985, providing how jurisdictions could terminate (or "bail out" from) coverage under the special provisions of Section 4. Furthermore, after extensive hearings, Congress decided that Section 2 should be amended to prohibit vote dilution without a requirement of proof of discriminatory purpose.
If Section 5 is not extended, the covered jurisdictions will not have to submit voting changes to the Department of Justice. The loss of federal authority to control voting procedures could enable local governments to more easily discriminate against minority voters.
Renewing the Voting Rights Act won’t solve all of these problems, but more Americans will have confidence that their votes really do count. If we are to be an example of liberal democracy and equality of opportunity, let us start by recommitting ourselves to forging bipartisan solutions to the nation’s continuing civil rights problems. Let’s carry on the important work that remains to become a "more perfect union" with equal justice and a government of, by and for the people.