Why the Voting Rights Act is Still Vital

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  • If nothing else, the election of the nation’s first black president has ushered in its share of contradictions.

    President Obama’s 2008 victory, for example, was initially billed as a post-racial beginning for this country. Unfortunately, it wound up being a wake-up call for racists.

    The first to rise were the limited-government, no taxes Tea Party people – people who had no problem with government as long as it was headed by white guys and as long as it was used to restrict the freedoms and opportunities of black and brown people they’d have to compete with.

    They became the base of the Republican Party.

    And one of the first things that a number of Tea Party-backed GOP governors and lawmakers did was use government to thwart the power of minorities in having a say in who ran it.

    So a number of states passed restrictive election laws based on the flimsy claim of trying to prevent voter fraud.

    Some, like Florida and Ohio, cut early voting days. Pennsylvania passed voter identification laws that would require people to dig up documents – like birth certificates and Social Security cards – to obtain a state-sanctioned voter ID card.

    Also in Florida, cumbersome rules were heaped on third-party groups, such as the League of Women Voters, that register people to vote, and lawful voters – many of whom happened to be black and Latino – were mistakenly purged from the rolls.

    Many of those efforts either failed or were blocked by the courts. And they failed big time during the election when black, Latino and young voters, apparently ticked off at the attempts to stop them from voting, waited hours in line to do just that.

    Still, here’s what's alarming.

    What’s alarming is that nearly 50 years after civil rights activists were beaten and gassed in Selma as they marched for the right to vote, all it took was the election of a black president for members of a mostly-white party to make suppressing black and brown turnout their top legislative priority.

    Again.

    That’s why we still need the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

    Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to review a challenge to Section 5 of the act – which Congress agreed to renew in 2006. This portion of the act requires jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to pre-clear any election law changes with the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

    Officials from Shelby County, Ala., near Birmingham claim that Section 5 violates the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which says that it’s up to states to regulate their elections.

    You know – the states’ rights thing again.

    Right now eight states – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas – have to have their voting changes pre-cleared. So do certain counties in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, California, New York and South Dakota.
     
    Yet some court watchers believe the act may be in trouble because of Obama’s victories; that the fact that minorities turned out in droves to elect him for a second term means it is no longer needed. And if the 2010 Tea Party takeover of the GOP hadn’t happened, it might be easier to entertain that possibility.
     
    But it did. And when it did, the very first thing that Republican lawmakers did was go after minority voters.

    While much of the voter suppression efforts happened in states that aren’t covered under Section 5, gutting the act would embolden GOP-led legislatures to find sneakier ways to restrict voting.The message it would send is that they are no longer being watched and that the courts no longer care. Some, in fact, might even revert to blatantly bad practices.
     
    Again, it’s almost a cruel contradiction.

    Demographic changes fueled Obama’s victories. But now, those victories might be used as proof that the people who voted for him no longer need the Voting Rights Act to protect their right to choose him.

    But while such a notion may heavily weigh the strength of minorities who are determined to vote, what it doesn’t do is heavily weigh the determination of those who are bent on stopping them.

    Especially if there’s not much in the law telling them they can’t.

    Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist who is based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her at tonyaajw@twitter. Or visit her webpage and blog, “Tonyaa’s Take,” at www.tonyaajweathersbee.com.
     
     

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