Renew the Voting Rights Act

(I am campaign blogger for John Bonifaz, a candidate for secretary of state in Massachusetts who urges Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act)

On October 4, 2004, on the day of Ohio's deadline for registering to vote in the presidential election, I was standing at a bus stop in downtown Cincinnati with a clipboard and a stack of voter registration forms.  The people I met there over the course of the day were mostly poor, or black, or both.  Among those who registered to vote when I asked were at least a few homeless folks who had to label their "home" streetcorner rather than supply an address - and didn't know they could register until I showed them how.

The previous week, in an attempt combat the massive inner city voter registration drive by ACT and other groups supporting Democrats, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell dug up an old Ohio regulation declaring that voter registration forms be printed on 80lb paper stock -- and decreed that voter registrations on ligher weight paper be rejected!  But within days, Blackwell had to relent and allow voter registrations on any paper stock to be processed, because of a federal law that states,

"No person acting under color of law shall . . . deny the right of any individual to vote in any election because of an error or omission on any record or paper relating to any application, registration, or other act requisite to voting, if such error or omission is not material in determining whether such individual is qualified under State law to vote in such election."
That law is the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  I grew up thinking of the VRA as history, something done and established.  It ended a multitude of practices used to prevent black voters and other minority voters from actually voting, practices that I thought were relegated to the pre-civil rights movement past.  Then I got involved in elections.

Just a few months after Blackwell's attempt to deny voting registration by paper stock, I was volunteering on election day in a special election for state Representative here in Massachusetts.  It was very close: in a 3-way race, my candidate, Tim Schofield, came in second place by just 64 votes, with the third place candidate only 32 votes behind him.  Schofield had strong support on the Boston University campus, and nearly a hundred BU students voted for him in a precinct that often sees fewer than 10 votes.  But a local ward committee member opposed to Schofield and some friends challenged voters at that precinct, and only at that precinct, sending students back to their apartments to find documentation of residence.  Almost 40 voters were deterred from voting, a number that fell short of changing the result of the election, but not by far.  Under the Voting Rights Act, challenging a voter when you don't have evidence that that voter is not eleigible, is a crime.  But this was a state level election, and we don't have a state parallel to this law yet.

The Voting Rights Act is still very much alive and relevant.  It throws obstacles in the paths of those who, like Ken Blackwell, want to deny citizens the right to vote.  It is protecting the right to vote right here in Boston, where that special election took place, and all over the country.  It has gaps, as we've learned in the past few years - it is a law we need to keep, strengthen, and expand upon.

Key portions of the Voting Rights Act sunset in 2007.  But last week, the Republican Congress decided to block renewal of the Voting Rights Act.  Dennis Hastert pulled the reauthorization from considering, when it became clear that it didn't have the backing of House Republicans:

In what was described as a contentious caucus meeting, Southern Republicans complained that their states were being singled out by the act, which was originally intended to do away with the poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that were used to deprive black voters of their rights during the Jim Crow era. Having grown up in South Carolina during the "last throes" (to quote Dick Cheney in another context) of racial segregation, I can testify that the states in question went far out of their way to earn the enhanced scrutiny the Voting Rights Act forces them to endure.

Sign PFAW's emergency petition, and call your Representative and Senators.  Urge them to renew the Voting Rights Act without ammendment.

Tags: CBC, Congress, election reform, Gerrymanders, HR 9, Redistricting, Voting Rights, Voting Rights Act, Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act (all tags)

Comments

5 Comments

Re: Renew the Voting Rights Act

Hey what difference does voting rights have if we have no right to see that the votes are actually counted?

by bugmenot 2006-06-26 02:23PM | 0 recs
Dems should be delighted with VRA stymie!

Seriously - let's be partisans for one minute here.

The CW is that the VRA has been good to the GOP - VRA gerrymanders, according to the CW, amount to around a net ten or a dozen seats in the GOP, rather than the Dem, column - or, at least, did so following the 1990 Census redistrictings.

So, on this basis, pretty well all the GOP's current House margin has been served up to them on a plate by the VRA!

(I'm not endorsing that analysis - I've yet to see the numbers crunched to back it up.)

And yet the GOP leadership is being (or allowing itself to be) held hostage by a bunch of backwoodsmen over HR 9.

I can understand why Dem pols should be wailing No fair! to the Great Unwashed about this. But - can't we admit to ourselves amongst the wised-up fraternity that this is potentially rather good news for the Dems?

At last, they have an issue which is in their wheelhouse and on which they can make telling partisan assaults. Painting the GOP as kloset Klansmen, pressing the liberal guilt button, spots with montages of civil rights era news footage - all that malarkey.

As important, they have an issue with which to distract the CBC, which, what with Jefferson and Harman/Hastings (to name but two troublesome cases), has been seen to be testing the resolve of the House Dem leadership in an apparent contest for influence.

And, lastly, they have an issue with which, if the Dems gain control of Congress in November, they could look to split GOP MCs and even generate a Bush veto.

I can't imagine that any incumbent CBC-ers need fear for their own seats (I'd like to be walked through the mechanism by anyone suggesting the reverse, put it that way).

But, into the medium term - the 2010 Census redistricting - the Dems might, free of VRA §5 constraints, be able to consider a more aggressively partisan redistricting plan in some states than possible with §5 in place, which, in the current era of tight House majorities, might give them a cushion essential for retaining control of the House for a string of Congresses.

by skeptic06 2006-06-26 05:29PM | 0 recs
House Judiciary report is worth having...

...in PDF form. (It's H Rep 109-478.) Loads of footnotes mean the HTML version is a tough read - the PDF is worth the 6MB download.

by skeptic06 2006-06-26 05:44PM | 0 recs
No

Dems can be "delighted" only if the VRA does get reauthorized soon, because this delay will just further reinforce how little the Republican party cares for voting rights.  Either way, for partisan advantage and for just plain doing the right thing, we need to push for it to be renewed.

Regarding redistricting, what we need to do is create nonpartisan redistricting commissions in every state, Iowa-style.  Otherwise the party in power will always take advantage of redistricting for their benefit.  In the meantime, let's become the party in power by winning more state legislatures.

But in the larger scheme of things, we need to win the big ideas that will swing a hundred districts over the next few elections, not piddle with districts to gain a few slightly more favorable seats at the cost of giving up what we stand for (and giving up on the big ideas that will make realignment possible).  We're the Democratic party - we promote democracy.

by cos 2006-06-26 07:25PM | 0 recs
Re: No

I wasn't suggesting that the Dems shouldn't press for VRA renewal to be enacted. Clearly, there's no other stance they can take.

I was merely considering the balance of advantage to the Dems now that the GOP have decided, for the moment, to freeze progress on HR 9.

That is clearly something that the Dems had no control over. And I didn't expect Nancy to dance a fandango at the news; but, as I explained, given that the GOP have forced the situation on the Dems, there are some opportunities to consider.

On the wider question of redistricting, if we were starting from scratch, I'd agree that the best solution would be nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

But we're not starting from scratch. We're starting from a position where the Dems have egregiously gerrymandered (in MD, for example) and been gerrymandered against (notably in TX). We expect that, any day now, the SCOTUS in LULAC will more or less wash their hands of partisan gerrymanders.

Given that there's no chance of Federal legislation on the subject, the Dems should surely be loathe to go the goo-goo route on gerrymandering without ensuring that their national position is preserved.

If the Dems do well in November in gov and lege elections in states with partisan redistricting, they'd be silly not to at least consider, state by state, whether or not they should seek to gerrymander lege districts and CDs in time for the 08 election.

When you say

we need to win the big ideas that will swing a hundred districts over the next few elections, not piddle with districts to gain a few slightly more favorable seats at the cost of giving up what we stand for (and giving up on the big ideas that will make realignment possible).

I admire the force of the sentiment, but wonder where these big ideas are coming from? I didn't spot any in Real Security or New Direction!

For instance, when the Dems have the opportunity to lift voters' expectations to encompass universal health care, they choose instead to offer modest amendments to Medicare Part D.

In fact, I think they're being sensible: the only times when big ideas have informed sustained liberal legislative programs were during the Depression and after the JFK assassination. I don't think the Dems can bet the farm on finding any time soon a perfect storm that will make another such program possible.

Hence the need to piddle.

by skeptic06 2006-06-26 08:09PM | 0 recs

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