50th Anniversary of Voting Rights Act Takes a Big Hit

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — considered by many to be the most effective piece of civil rights law ever passed in the United States. During the 50 years since its passage, it has been renewed by Congress several times without much alteration or resistance.

The purpose of the act was to make it unlawful to discriminate against minorities by state and local governments who had for all times made it difficult, if not impossible, for blacks and other minorities to register to vote and thus to vote at all. Before 1965, the registration of blacks in most of the Civil War southern states was below 10%. By the end of 1965 after the passage of the act, approximately 250,000 African Americans were newly registered voters. Just 3 years later, more than 700,000 blacks would be registered to vote. Steadily the numbers increased over the years.

And in fact — and most important — African Americans and other minorities in the South were being elected to local state and federal political positions. These advances took place even in the face of efforts to curtail registration and to gerrymander districts into places where blacks and other minorities were unelectable mostly because of the racial makeup of these districts where whites would never or most likely not vote for a black candidate.

Ironically, in the year in which Americans should have been celebrating the enactment of this civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated the Voting Rights Act because it found that Section 5 was unconstitutional. With that decision in Shelby County, the counter-revolutionaries against the Voting Rights Act have set their sights on undoing the entire work of the civil rights movement from the 1960s and before.

In essence, the Shelby County case has made the Voting Rights Act of 1965 basically toothless. As a result, many states in the south and around the country have enacted restrictive voter ID laws making it difficult for minorities, the elderly, students, and the handicapped to vote in local, state and federal elections. Without Section 5 of the Voting Right Acts of 1965, these onerous voter ID laws in these many states from Mississippi to Wisconsin and North Carolina to Indiana, Michigan, Georgia and Ohio have reduced the prospect of hundreds of thousands if not millions of voters in the coming elections.

Because Section 5 is no longer a part of the Voting Rights Act, these laws are untouchable by the courts. Many of the laws have been challenged to no avail given the Supreme Court decision of Shelby County. Section 5 was the most powerful piece of the Voting Rights Act in that it provided for a formula used to determine which parts of the country would need federal approval or preclearance in order to change their voting procedures. The U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County struck down Section 5 in the 5-4 ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Section 5, was outdated.

Without the power that the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and its civil rights division would have with a viable Section 5, states like Kansas, Texas, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida have enacted some of the strictest laws requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote. It is abundantly clear that these strict voter ID laws are designed to limit access to the voting booths of minorities, the elderly and students who generally vote for Democrats. It is undoubtedly true that there has been little or no in-person voter fraud in the United States for decades. Yet the argument is still made by these state legislatures that the ID laws are to prevent in-person voter ID fraud. Interestingly enough, the evidence is overwhelming that voter fraud takes place by absentee ballots or mail-in ballots. These are not included in voter ID laws, the obvious reason being that most absentee ballots are submitted by Republicans rather than Democrats. For the most part, the states in which ID laws have been enacted are controlled by Republican governors and state legislatures.

One of the most in-depth analyses of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its present condition is given by Ari Berman in his book “Give Us the Ballot.” This book was published in its first edition in 2015 and is extremely informative yet pointedly distressing that the Voting Rights Act as it now stands has little or no enforcement powers to correct discrimination in the voting booth. It’s interesting that the Chief Justice of the United States had designs on limiting the Voting Rights Act as early as the first Reagan administration when he worked in the legal department there. Also Justice Samuel Alito was likewise a member of that legal team. Justice Alito worked under the head of the Office of Legal Counsel in 1982 as part of the Justice Department. Justice Roberts was once the Clerk of Justice Rehnquist from 1980 to August 1981. Justice Roberts served in the Department of Justice and was given a primary role in civil rights policy as early as the fall of 1981. The Voting Rights Act was the largest part of Justice Roberts’ then portfolio.

The right to vote is a constitutional right and one never to be taken lightly. It should never be the policy of any political party to limit the right to vote of any citizen of the United States, yet that seems to be the movement that has curtailed voting in many states and jurisdictions around the country. The United States has the lowest turnout rate of any civilized western country. That should change by removing the restrictions that have been imposed of citizens of many of the states.

Robert Kreisman of Kreisman Law Offices has advocated for the right to vote throughout his 38-year legal career and continues to this time. He has often volunteered to supervise orderly registration and voting on election days around the country.

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