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American Voting Rights And Democracy In Peril

Updated on May 9, 2013

American Voting Rights and Democracy in Peril

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an important landmark piece of federal legislation that the United States Supreme Court has taken up this judicial term. It is also the latest attempt by the Republican party to change the electoral makeup of the United States which is rapidly trending away from them. These trends are based both in regards to their policies and to demographics. The 2012 election cycle featured several of their attempts at voter suppression by way of new voter identification laws, selective shortening of voting hours, as well as other methods. Now they are contemplating altering the way electoral college votes are distributed as well as engineering this Voting Rights Act judicial challenge.

The South and some other states had employed a lengthy list of laws to restrict African Americans in regards to many of their rights including voting after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. President Lyndon Johnson engineered the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to ensure that African American citizens would not be impeded from voting in the South and elsewhere. Supreme Court observers feel that there is a serious chance that the Court might overturn that law this term.

I will examine the contents and history of the Voting Rights Act as an opening to this Hub. Then I will describe the case being brought before the Court along with the pros and cons being argued. Finally I will state my analysis of these arguments along with my concluding position.

The Civil Rights movement grew steadily throughout the 1950's and 1960's as a delayed outgrowth of the extreme "Jim Crow" laws, mainly in the South, that restricted the rights of their African American citizens. These laws segregated them from the rest of their society. They were relegated to vastly inferior accommodations , services, education, and all other advantages that their fellow White citizens enjoyed. President Johnson, in 1964, decided to take up the civil rights cause that the recently assassinated President John Kennedy had initiated. He aggressively pressed the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act ending segregation in schools, workplaces, and all public establishments.

In 1965, President Johnson successfully engineered the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This law was initiated to put a halt to the various practices that restricted or precluded African American citizens from voting. A couple of examples of these tactics were the poll tax and literacy tests. This law also requires pre-clearances from the United States Justice Department for all voting changes in districts that come under the purview of this Act. These states and districts are areas that had previously utilized voter suppression devices in a lengthy and sustained basis over the course of many years. There is also a bailout provision in this Act where a district may prove that they no longer use such devices and will never do so again. There is also a bail-in mechanism where the Justice department may offer proof that a district is now using such voter suppression devices. The Voting Rights Act was renewed by Congress in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. The 2006 vote in the United States Senate was 98-0.

The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Shelby County v Holder on November 9, 2012. The question before the Court is whether Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4B of that Act exceeds its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments thus violating the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment reserves all powers not specified in the U.S. Constitution to the states. Article IV states that all public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of a state shall be recognized and in effect for every other state.

The Voting Rights Act was passed to fulfill the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause which prohibits state and local governments from depriving persons of life, liberty or property. It also protects this Amendment's equal protection clause which ensures that all citizens are protected in the same way. The Fifteenth Amendment protects the voting rights of citizens based on race, color or previous servitude. Therefore the crux of the argument before the Supreme Court is whether the Voting Rights Act now oversteps its powers enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

A great many of the localities in the South have remedied the onerous restrictions that they had placed on voting for African Americans. Poll taxes and literacy tests are a thing of the past. There are opt out and opt in mechanisms in the Voting Rights Act. Localities that have shown sustained compliance have been able to opt out and no longer have to apply to the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) to enact voting and election changes. These opt outs have dramatically increased over the last few years. Some localities have had to be opted in due to violations but these events have been very few.

Not all of the states and localities covered by the Voting Rights Act are in the South. Section 5 covers discrimination against African Americans. Most of the states covered by this section are in the South. New Hampshire and Alaska are the two that are covered but not from the South. Some states are covered by Section 203 which protects American citizens of Spanish heritage and American Indians. The states under Section 203 represent a much wider swath of the United States and is not restricted to one geographical area.

One of the key arguments that the opponents of the Voting Rights Act use in this case is that it is used unequally against the South. I believe this to be a fallacious argument. Firstly, this law was initiated and directed at the southern states because of their blatant use of mechanisms to deter African American voters. Secondly, the opt out provisions have allowed numerous southern localities to remove themselves from this DOJ elections oversight. Thirdly, states all around the country are effected for violations against many different minority ethnic groups.

Another argument against the Voting Rights Act is that this is a state function under the U.S. Constitution and not a federal one. The Fifteenth Amendment supersedes this interpretation and makes it constitutionally wrong on its face. This amendment not only states that no state may deny or abridge a citizen's right to vote due to race but empowers the United States Congress to enforce it.

The last major argument against the Voting Rights Act is that the conditions that precipitated this law no longer exist. The run up to the 2012 elections and its aftermath have clearly proven the falseness of this assertion. The 2012 election cycle is replete with examples of voter suppression laws passed by Republican legislatures all across the United States. Voter identification laws were passed both in the North and South with the aim of limiting the turnout of Democratic leaning minority groups. Early voting was curtailed in many states for the same reason. Laws aimed at college students were instituted to keep them from voting at their campuses thus lowering their turnouts in key areas. Clearly voter suppression laws are alive and well and must still be addressed. This trend has continued even after the November 2012 elections.

My view regarding this Constitutional debate boils down to which Constitutional amendment holds dominance over this question. Only ten amendments were written and passed into the initial Bill of Rights at the beginning of our republic. The Tenth Amendment gave all powers not conveyed to the federal government in the Constitution to the states. Therefore each state had traditionally set up their own voting regulations due to the absence of Constitutional rules regarding this process. Then history intruded upon this tradition.

The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870 prohibiting all states and localities from denying their citizens the vote due to race, color or previous servitude. The Civil War had preceded this development and also enabled it. This amendment also gave Congress the power to enforce it through legislation. The federal government decided to neglect this authority after Reconstruction. The South precluded almost all of its African American citizens from voting during the Jim Crow era by a variety of means.

The result of this injustice and many others was the Civil Rights movement which culminated with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The Voting Rights Act was enacted to specifically empower the federal government to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. This negates the predominance of the Tenth Amendment over this issue. There now was Constitutional authority giving the federal government power in this area.

In my opinion, this Fifteenth Amendment authority overrides the fairness issues that Voting Rights Act opponents raise. All localities may opt out of federal authority by showing consistent and lengthy fair behavior regarding voting rules. This Act is also used throughout the United States in regards to many ethnic groups. Thus the fairness issue is clearly wrong even though I believe it is also irrelevant.

The bottom line in this judicial argument is that the history of the United States evolved to a point where the initial sin of slavery and its aftermath needed to be remedied. The Civil War ended the institution of slavery but the discrimination and negation of rights against African Americans quickly resumed. The Voting Rights Act put teeth into the Fifteenth Amendment.

The 2012 election cycle proved that voter suppression has once again reared its ugly head with a vengeance. New voter suppression laws are spreading like wildfire. The predominance of the Fifteenth Amendment over the Tenth Amendment should ensure its being upheld by the United States Supreme Court though that is unclear. The current continuation of Republican voter suppression mechanisms urges its continued existence.

We need to be expanding our voter election rolls to include everyone. Excluding those who do not agree with our political views is undemocratic and against our American principles. Our revolutionary system of democracy is at stake in this debate. We must not be silent regarding this issue. Voter suppression left unchecked will tear the walls of our democratic republic down. We cannot allow this to happen.


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    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Today the Supreme Court struck down the original coverage map of the Voting Rights Act but left pre-clearance in effect. Unfortunately pre-clearance is now a moot point until Congress creates a new map. This Act now has no power until Congress acts. This is a travesty. The opt in and opt out provisions were allowing this map to change already. Congress will not act on this "hot potato" issue. Republicans are now free to restrict voting against minorities all around the country and they will.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I still think there are differences in degree, Borsia. It is a problem. I appreciate your comments and constructive debate.

    • Borsia profile image

      Borsia 5 years ago from Currently, Philippines

      No they are the puppets of the lawyers and unions. Same corruption just different masters, all bad for America.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I agree that the Democrats rely on money also but not nearly as much from wealthy corporate donors. The United States definitely needs major election reforms to preserve its democracy. Unfortunately our Supreme Court is a major impediment. Thank you for your comments, Borsia.

    • Borsia profile image

      Borsia 5 years ago from Currently, Philippines

      Democrats would be just as quick to block any meaningful election reform. Both parties rely on being the only games in town. Both parties rely on elections remaining a big money scam to stay in power.

      In my eyes both parties are equally corrupt and equally to blame for where we are and where we are headed.

      I'm just happy that I have no children, I don't see a happy future for the US or the planet.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      You provide excellent ideas to improve the election process in the United States, Borsia. Republicans claim that there is considerable voter fraud going on and the truth is that very little actually occurs. Proper ID laws established far ahead of elections are fine but citizens need proper access to obtain them also. Election day used to be a holiday in our country when I was younger but the powers that be caved to corporate interests and stopped that. I also would reinstitute it. There is a no electioneering within a certain distance of polls now but that could certainly be expanded. Excellent ideas but Republicans will block them because they do not advance their goal of regaining the majority of votes in this country. Whether by hook or by crook. Thank you for your helpful comments, Borsia.

    • Borsia profile image

      Borsia 5 years ago from Currently, Philippines

      I have lived in several countries and there are some things they all do that the US should consider.

      1. they all have some sort of voter ID. But this has to be done far in advance of any election not at the last minute as the Republicans tried to do.

      2. election day is a national holiday insuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to get to the polls. Even though I started voting in 1972 and never missed an election I often needed to vote with an absentee ballot simply because it was impractical to get to the polls.

      In most countries there is no sale of alcohol allowed so that the holiday doesn't get used as just another excuse to get drunk & stay home. Some countries carry this policy to include days before the election. I don't know if the "no sale" concept really does any good but the US had the fewest number of holidays of pretty much any country, including communist countries, so adding 1 every 2 years isn't such a bad idea.

      3. no gathering or approaching voters is allowed within a given distance from the poll entrance. mostly this is just a matter of keeping things moving but it also helps prevent last minute biasing of polling places.

      Unfortunately the election process in the US has become so corrupted by money and a media system that is just as corrupt as the 2 major parties.

      When you have government, and now a justice system, that is for sale to the highest bidder democracy is in failing hands.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for your very kind comments, Lurana. I try to make my analysis of these subjects clear and understandable. I have had very little knowledge of them until I have studied them and when I do I tend to be quite thorough. My academic degree is in Economics and Business Administration but I have always had a strong interest in Politics and History. My goal on HubPages is not to gather the most views and attract casual viewers. I hope to attract serious viewers such as yourself and learn things on the way. That comes by way of my research and especially by the comments of my viewers. I appreciate your feedback and your sharing on Facebook.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Incisive, efficient analysis of a very important subject! Even with my political science background, the ins and outs of Constitutional law can be challenging for me, and the political rhetoric in the media does nothing to further my understanding of the real issues under Supreme Court consideration.

      I have consistently found your expositions on Amendments to be enlightening and accessible.

      I also have to respectfully disagree with my Hubpages friend Eric. While his feedback may hold true for the popular online style (at Hubpages and elsewhere), an academic style does still appeal to some of us who are looking for pure academic articles. Some subjects do not easily lend themselves to photos---one can only put so many "signing of the Constitution" on a series of Constitutional articles! :-) The only other fitting imagery might be something equally cliche or exploitative, like American flags, bipartisan symbols, or photos of voters being turned away at the polls in the 60's. These might help with a thumbnail image (one photo?), but they do not add to the content and there are people out there who find gratuitous photos distasteful. FYI: I did, however, have to scroll past an unusual amount of white space after the text to reach the comments/sharing section.

      Excellent writing as usual---voting up and sharing on Facebook! ~Lurana

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for your comments, Eric. I understand your criticisms of my writing style and have heard them before. I actually used to write with only three or four very long paragraphs. I have cut these paragraphs down though I guess you wish I would cut them down much more. I cannot cut them down any further. I feel I would be diluting my message. I could include pictures but I do not feel inserting them for the sake of doing so adds anything. I do care about my readers and I hope I hope I inform them in some way or spark a useful debate. I write to inform on a subject and distill my opinion on it. Entertainment is not my thing. I will take your observations under advisement and see what I can do to improve.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Buddy you write well and this position is well formed. But your format sucks. Put in some pictures. Break up with paragraphs. Hubs are not the place where students are forced to read. Give us a break.

      I want to hear your message but not feel like you do not care about your reader.


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