Reformism: The Voting Rights Act of 1965
“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
“When Huey P. Long told his supporters in Louisiana that ‘If you don’t vote, you don’t matter;’ as it relates to his African American supporters, he must have forgotten about the KKK.” — Kent Allen Halliburton
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Civil Rights Movement on August 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
The Act contains numerous provisions that regulate election administration. The Act’s “general provisions” provide nationwide protections for voting rights. Section 2 is a general provision that prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Other general provisions specifically outlaw literacy tests and similar devices that were historically used to disenfranchise racial minorities.
The Act also contains “special provisions” that apply to only certain jurisdictions. A special provision is the Section 5 preclearance requirement, which prohibits certain jurisdictions from implementing any change affecting voting without receiving preapproval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C. that the change does not discriminate against protected minorities. Another special provision requires jurisdictions containing significant language minority populations to provide bilingual ballots and other election materials.
Section 5 and most other special provisions apply to jurisdictions encompassed by the “coverage formula” prescribed in Section 4(b). The coverage formula was originally designed to encompass jurisdictions that engaged in egregious voting discrimination in 1965, and Congress updated the formula in 1970 and again in 1975. In Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2 (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula as unconstitutional, reasoning that it was no longer responsive to current conditions, as the formula was then nearly forty years old. The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without a coverage formula, Section 5 is unenforceable. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.
How Does This Relate to Reformism?
First, the Shelby case has already shone one way in which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been struck by reformist policies; however, long before the Shelby decision, there were other methods used to keep African Americans and other minorities from exercising their rights that were now guaranteed to them by yet another law. The initial blow back came from local citizens and small governments who did not wish to see their African American and other populations enter the polls. Sheriffs shut down polling stations completely; and if they did not do that, they brutalized any African American or any other person they did not approve of that attempted to enter a polling station.
Video recordings and photographs from across the South were caught on national news and shown to the whole world. In other cases, the police set attack dogs on people, and these images also made their way around the world, however, other much more gruesome methods were used by Southern whites in their efforts to keep African Africans from exercising their rights under the new law. Founded in their original form in 1865, the KKK has historically served as one of the premier domestic terrorism organizations in the United States, and their primary target has always been African Americans.
During the period when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was being debated and then was passed, they were highly active in terrorizing activists and then people attempting vote under the new law. Without mercy, and without legal restrictions in many areas, they murdered innocent people and these stories too made international news. People’s homes were burned to the ground, churches were bombed, men were lynched or burned alive, people were drug from the back of trucks, people were drowned, people were shot, and the list goes on. The worst part of this is that in many of these cases, the federal government never brought charges against the local governments that condoned, or at the very least, failed to properly prosecute these actions. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.
How Else Might This Relate to Reformism?
In the process of setting electoral districts, gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries. The resulting district is known as a gerrymander, recently changed from the original; however, that word can also refer to the process. The term gerrymandering has negative connotations. Two principal tactics are used in gerrymandering: “cracking,” i.e. diluting the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts and “packing,” concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts.
In addition to its use achieving desired electoral results for a particular party, gerrymandering may be used to help or hinder a particular demographic, such as a political, ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, or class group, such as in U.S. federal voting district boundaries that produce a majority of constituents representative of African-American or other racial minorities, known as “majority-minority districts”. Gerrymandering can also be used to protect incumbents.
Majority-minority districts may be created to avoid or remedy violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s prohibitions on drawing redistricting plans that diminish the ability of a racial or language minority to elect its candidates of choice. In some instances, majority-minority districts may result from affirmative racial gerrymandering. The value of drawing district lines to create majority-minority districts is a matter of dispute both within and outside of minority communities. Some view majority-minority districts as a way to dilute the voting power of minorities and analogous to racial segregation; others favor majority-minority districts as ways to effectively ensure the election of minorities to legislative bodies, including the House of Representatives. Majority-minority districts have been the subject of legal cases examining the constitutionality of such districts, including Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993), Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900 (1995), and Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996). Since the Shelby County v. Holder case, such issues have become ever more prominent.
There are also now Voter ID Laws. Proponents of these laws argue that they reduce electoral fraud while placing only a small burden on voters. Opponents argue that electoral fraud is extremely rare in the United States and has been magnified as an issue to create barriers to voter registration, and that requiring voter ID in effect discriminates against minority groups and those who are less likely to possess photo IDs. Critics have argued that the barriers could result in the disenfranchisement of black, Hispanic, and other minority voters. Research has shown that the type of voter fraud that would be prevented by voter IDs is extremely rare; research is mixed as to whether voter ID laws reduce overall turnout or minority turnout; and research has shown that Republican legislators in swing states and districts with sizable black or Hispanic populations push the hardest for voter ID laws. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.