On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is not only one of the most important legislative achievements of the 20th century, it is easily a seminal moment in American history.
Using language similar to the 15th Amendment (which gave black males the right to vote in 1870), the Act prohibits states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
Before passage of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states – especially those in the Deep South – used a variety of tactics to systematically suppress black voter registration and turnout. The VRA outlaws discriminatory tests like literacy tests, test of good character, racial gerrymandering, and the use of poll taxes. To prevent the intimidation of voters or the rigging of the election outcome, the Act authorizes the attorney general to appoint election monitors and poll watchers. And, to block any future efforts to resurrect obstacles to black voter participation, the VRA contains special enforcement provisions targeted at those areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act, coupled with sustained and intense enforcement of its provisions by the Federal government, meant that millions of blacks for the first time were able to participate in the political process. Over the years, the Act has been renewed and expanded to protect the voting rights of other previously disenfranchised groups. For example, the 1975 Amendments add protections from voting discrimination for language minority citizens. Specifically, jurisdictions with large language minorities are required to provide election materials in the language of the minority group and in English. Additionally, jurisdictions with large language minorities are required to have oral translators with the ability to walk the voter through the stages of the voting process, from registration to the casting of their ballot.
Ever since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the black vote has been a force in presidential politics. In particular, the black vote can either make or break the presidential aspirations of a Democrat. On the one hand, the disenfranchisement of black voters, especially people convicted of a felony, in Florida in 2000 played a crucial role in the outcome of the election, handing it to George W. Bush. On the other hand, during the 2008 presidential election, high black voter turnout in several key battleground states cemented President Barack Obama's victory, helping the nation elect its first black president.
Broadly speaking, the election of the nation's first black president was due in large part to the success of the Voting Rights Act in opening the door of the electoral process to historically marginalized groups in Americans. According to exit polls (as reported in the New York Times) conducted in 2008 shortly after voters left the polling booth, only 43 percent of whites voted for President Obama. By comparison, blacks (95 percent), Hispanics (67 percent) and Asians (62 percent) were far more likely to have voted for the president, making possible his success.
It should be noted, however, President Obama could not have beaten the Republican nominee for president, Senator John McCain, with only the support of people of color. The president was successful because he stitched together a diverse group of voters to go along with his strong support in black, Hispanic, and Asian communities. He did very well among 18-29 year-olds (66 percent), people with less than a high school diploma (66 percent), first time voters (69 percent), and urban residents (70 percent).
Combined, these groups were crucial to the president's victory in 2008. It may come as no surprise then that Republican lawmakers across the country – drunk with power after major victories at the state and national level during the 2010 election cycle – have been enacting changes to their state's election laws designed to make it more difficult for Americans to vote. The greatest impact of these laws will be on those groups that were among the president's strongest supporters in 2008: blacks, Hispanics, the young, and new voters.
The rigging of the 2012 presidential election is underway. Voter suppression is a key component of the Republican strategy to defeat President Obama in 2012. These efforts, initiated by Republicans (and, in some states, along with their duplicitous Democratic allies) and enacted this year, may play a very significant role in whether the president gets reelected or not. For example, voter ID laws were enacted in Rhode Island, Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Tennessee (joining Indiana and Georgia). To be clear, voter ID laws are nothing more than modern day poll taxes (which, by the way, were banned by the 24 Amendment to the Constitution) which place a disproportionate and unacceptable burden on young, poor, and nonwhite people, who are less likely to have a driver's license or an official government identification card.
Early voting also came under attack by Republican lawmakers. "Early voting allows registered voters the opportunity to cast a ballot before Election Day, whether in person at designated early voting locations or through absentee mail ballot, and helps to both alleviate long lines at the polls and, in some cases, cut costs for election administration by allowing county officials to open fewer voting precincts on Election Day and expediting the voting process," writes Cristina Francisco-McGuire of the Progressive States Network. In several key states, voters were encouraged to vote early by candidate Obama's ground operation. In Florida, 54 percent of blacks cast their ballots early. In North Carolina – where candidate Obama won with less than 15,000 votes – more people voted before Election Day than on it. More than half of North Carolina's black population voted early, compared to about 40 percent of whites. Aware of the potential effectiveness of early voting to turn out Democratic leaning constituencies, Republican lawmakers in Florida and Wisconsin have shortened the early voting period and eliminated Sunday voting.
Florida, as we know, a key battleground state, also ended a longstanding practice that allows voters to change their address between counties on Election Day and cast a regular ballot, and it imposed new restrictions that will make it more difficult to conduct organized voter-registration drives.
Republican lawmakers claim that these laws are needed in order to prevent voter fraud from occurring. But, as Washington Post opinion writer, E.J. Dione Jr., points out in a recent column: "But, study after study has shown that fraud by voters is not a major problem – and is less of a problem than how hard many states make it for people to vote in the first place. Some of the new laws, notably those limiting the number of days for early voting, have little plausible connection to battling fraud."
Republicans smell blood in the water, believing that their efforts to turn back the clock on voting rights can rig this election just enough to make the president a one-termer. Keep in mind, however, that Republican lawmakers do not want to completely eliminate black voters; rather, they just want to do enough mischief to affect the outcome of the election in a way that favors the Republican presidential candidate in battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Indiana.
Seeking relief from the courts may be difficult. The Federal Court system is stacked with conservative Republican appointees. Nonetheless, the Justice Department should aggressively challenge these laws, especially in those states that are covered by the Voting Rights Act. They clearly violate the spirit and intent of the Act.
President Obama has a tough road ahead of him. Republican lawmakers are doing their best to suppress the voting rights of key Democratic constituencies in an effort to win back the presidency. Moreover, as evidenced by the 2010 mid-term election, working-class whites are abandoning the Democratic Party in droves. It appears more and more likely that the Republican Party may just succeed in rigging the outcome of the 2012 Presidential Election just enough to win back the White House.