Election Reform, Civil-Rights Style
July 15, 2005 - 10:05am ET
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Forty years ago, election reform was not about campaign contributions—it was about equal opportunity. That still should be the priority. Earlier this week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., announced that he will introduce legislation to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 more years. And the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is organizing a Pro-Democracy March and Rally in Atlanta on August 6 to support the Voting Rights Act.
Let's rewind back to 1965 and the Civil Rights movement. Equal voting rights was one of the major issues at stake. One of the key reasons “Bloody Sunday ”—the violent clash between police and peaceful protestors in Selma, Ala.— occurred was racial discrimination and voting inequalities.One positive outcome of that tragedy was the Voting Rights Act, which President Johnson pushed through Congress in a matter of weeks in the summer of 1965. We've still got that act—but maybe not all of it for much longer.
The Voting Rights Act is a nice piece of legislation, but there are two sections that give it the most weight. Section 5 is the wording that forces certain states to seek approval for any voting changes they might decide to make. This was originally angled at the Southern states as an attempt to help protect African-American voters. The section stipulates that if the percentage of registered voters is under 50 and there is a required literacy test, then the federal government must approve all election legislation. A tricky, non-racial way of forcing equality.
The second is section 203. This section requires that states provide language assistance to all citizens. This is probably the more controversial of sections—and it has been shown to make a difference. The argument against this provision is that if you’re going to be an American citizen, learn the native language and adapt. Well, I am a native English speaker and am not sure I have completely understood the wording of some voting decisions—like ballot initiatives in California, where I've lived for four years. The absentee ballot is 10 to 15 pages thick and filled with legalese.
So why is the VRA still an issue? In 1982, Congress renewed these portions of the VRA for 25 years. If you do that math, that’s 2007. These sections need to remain active and in order to do so, they must be reconfirmed.
The Leadership Council on Civil Rights is holding a conference about the act and the influences it has had over the past 40 years. LCCR's goal is to educate and promote the act, so the public knows how vital reconfirmation is. Their website is full of resorces and features stories about how the VRA has influenced real people's lives.
We shouldn't have to have another Bloody Sunday to spur action on the crucial issue of voting rights. Renewing the VRA for another 25 years will protect rights that shouldn't have needed legislation to begin with.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future