Renew the Voting Rights Act
by cos, Mon Jun 26, 2006 at 01:33:34 PM EDT
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.