The Sunday, Aug. 2, The New York Times Magazine contains a cover story titled “A Dream Undone,” pertaining to the legacy of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of that landmark legislation today, we should be aware of both the progress and pitfalls associated with voting in the United States.
Almost as soon as the last of the three Civil War-era amendments was added to the American Constitution, recalcitrant and unrepentant state governments began a series of practices designed to prevent voting by black citizens and other minorities.
Among these procedures were poll taxes, literacy tests, at-large elections, which ensured white winners, and white primaries, which maintained racist, one-party rule. Violence and intimidation against African-Americans and others attempting to register and vote were commonplace.
The decade leading up to the Voting Rights Act can be regarded as the golden era of the civil-rights movement, from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the 1956 Brown v. Board II ruling to the several civil-rights acts passed by Congress.
Additionally, three constitutional amendments ratified between 1961 and 1971 dealt centrally with voting, including the 23rd Amendment permitting the right to vote for president in the District of Columbia (1961), the 24th Amendment prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections (1964), and the 26th Amendment lowering the right to vote to 18 years of age (1971).
Conversely, the events of Selma in March 1965 demonstrated the lengths by which state authorities ignored the just-passed 1964 Civil Rights Act and continued illegal discriminatory behavior to restrict and prevent voting. It was those factors which prompted President Lyndon Johnson to send the Voting Rights Act to Congress and lobby successfully for its enactment.
In his remarks upon signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, President Johnson observed that the right to vote “is the basic right without which all others are meaningless.” While thanking supporters for their help in getting the legislation passed, LBJ likewise counseled black leaders to tackle remaining challenges by teaching and listening, registering and voting, and demonstrating where necessary.
The Voting Rights Act and its subsequent amendments perpetuated a plethora of positive effects. Most importantly, the law assisted citizens by getting the federal government involved in monitoring and enforcement of fair voting procedures in states where questionable practices occurred.
Further, the law definitely had an impact on the number of elected African Americans serving at all levels of state and federal government. Too, the Voting Rights Act increased the number of Americans registering and voting.
However, contemporary controversy over voting procedures has cast suspicion on the intentions of those charged with upholding the law. Paramount among those concerned with the future of voting rights is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case, which removed the methods by which the government can investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
Of course, much attention has been paid to voter-identification laws making it more difficult for certain segments of the electorate to vote. Not coincidentally, eight of the nine states with the toughest voter-ID provisions are politically controlled by Republicans.
Other states have sought to block procedures making it easier to register. Of the 15 states which permit registration on the same day as the election, 12 are politically controlled by Democrats. Whereas obstacles to early and absentee voting have been lessened over time, a number of states either prevent or restrict same. Other documented voting-procedure irregularities have involved misleading or confusing instructions for voting, adding or canceling elections, changing poll locations and times, imposing restrictive candidate qualifications, and manipulating the redistricting process.
In the effort to rectify deficiencies and devious actions taken against the Voting Rights Act, there have been a number of proposed remedies discussed.
For one, U.S. Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., and others have introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 as a legislative means to fix what the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision wrought. Second, federal authorities have initiated court action against states like North Carolina and Texas for violating the letter or spirit of the original law. Third, states should revisit the practice of electing partisan election commissioners. Fourth, along with perpetual voter registration drives, there must be education campaigns to ensure that citizens know their rights when it comes to the voting process. Finally, it will be necessary for civil-rights groups such as the NAACP to maintain their oversight and advocacy role when it comes to scrutiny of voting procedures.
In a list of the top 100 documents in U.S. history released at the start of the new millennium, the Voting Rights Act made the cut. But there is much work to do to reverse the recent setbacks involving the law. Still, past performance and future potential mean that the Voting Rights Act should be regarded not as a dream undone, but as one yet to be won.
Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. In addition to teaching and publishing about voting and elections, he has participated as a candidate for various offices at the federal, county and local levels.