The Voting Rights Act was enacted 55 years ago this month. Sadly, many of the protections mandated in that legislation have been repealed or rendered ineffective, and the current election season is mired in efforts to restrict rather than expand access to the ballot box.
The problem isn’t likely to be rectified by enforcing or updating the current act; it needs to be replaced with new legislation that guarantees equal protection of the laws — for all eligible voters.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965. This was during the heat of our nation’s civil rights movement, and the legislation specifically prohibits discrimination according to race.
The law addressed routine, blatant practices that kept ethnic minorities from voting. Many minorities lived in poverty, partly because they often were barred from attending public schools. Demanding that voters pass literacy tests, prove that they owned property and meet other criteria effectively screened out those ethnic groups.
Sadly, we continue to see efforts to deny suffrage to certain groups of Americans. Several states, including Texas, have purged voter rolls in advance of elections, dropping many eligible voters in the process. Requirements that voters provide specific forms of identification, which naturalized citizens and other minorities have difficulty obtaining, have left many unable to vote.
Officials have cut early voting periods and shortened windows for registration ahead of elections. Gerrymandering is being openly practiced to weaken the strength of specific groups. Now our own president is fighting to reduce ballot access by opposing the use of mail-in balloting, a practice that has been effective in all states for decades.
Those who engage in such practices have argued that their tactics are meant to secure political rather than racial advantage — basically, they have targeted ethnic minorities not because they are minorities but because they tend to vote a certain way.
Strangely, some courts have accepted the defense and allowed their discriminatory practices.
Those practices have been more frequent, and more blatant, since the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated a part of the Voting Rights Act that placed certain states under federal review due to their history of discrimination. The court ruled that their was no mechanism for the states to escape federal supervision by proving compliance, and that the criteria established for the review were outdated.
Obviously the court expected the law to be revised, but Congress hasn’t done it.
Equal protection of the laws isn’t based solely on race. Discrimination based on political beliefs is just as wrong as that based on race, nationality, religion or any other metric.
Congress should waste no time revisiting the Voting Rights Act, and expanding it beyond the limiting focus on race.
They should set new criteria for determining violations and appropriate sanctions.
Our democracy is only as strong as the means by which it is practiced. Our laws must ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is able to do so, without having to jump through unfair hoops.