A devil's brew of cynicism on one side and demagoguery on the other seemed to guarantee renewal of the "temporary" features of the Voting Rights Act first passed in 1965.
The demagogues are straightforward. The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, declared, "Voting rights is [sic] not a liberal issue or a conservative issue . . .What could be more fundamental to our God-given rights than the unimpeded right to vote?" Except that the key features of the Voting Rights Act were permanent. The right of minorities to vote is not at issue, only the renewal of certain "emergency" measures that place special burdens on some counties and not others.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney contributed to a misunderstanding of what is at stake in her remarks to a Georgia rally last year: "If we are to avoid the strange fruit of powerlessness, we have to pass the torch of leadership to a new generation of young, strong, uncompromising tree shakers. We can no longer be satisfied with leaders handpicked for us and not by us, because it's that strange fruit that wrecks our dreams and kills our community; the strange fruit that occurs when other people assume our powerlessness, and we act accordingly . . ." Got that?
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we find Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and many members of the majority caucus chiming in that the Voting Rights Act must be renewed "as is." They are content to acquiesce in an act that stipulates persistent white racism because the law has proved a bonanza for Republican-elected officials. Racial gerrymanders -- creating so-called "majority minority" districts -- have remade the electoral map of the southern United States, resulting in the election of more black Democrats, fewer moderate or conservative Democrats, and more Republicans. And that satisfies the Republicans just fine.
The absurdity of the law does trouble a few, like Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. Section 5 of the Act was an "emergency" five-year provision aimed at the South. If a county met certain criteria, it would be subject to pre-clearance by the Justice Department before any changes could be made in election procedures. The criteria were 1) whether a test or device had been used to limit voting in past elections; and 2) if fewer than 50 percent of registered voters had shown up at the last presidential election. African-American turnout in the last two presidential elections has exceeded white turnout in Georgia. Of 34 statewide offices, nine are held by blacks; including the post of attorney general. Under the terms of the Voting Rights Act, if a covered county wishes to move a polling place from an elementary school across the street to a library, it must first get the Justice Department's permission. These days, the local official seeking such clearance is almost as likely to be black as white.
Westmoreland's aide Brian Robinson notes, "When a young African American graduates from school, one of the likeliest places he or she will go to live is Atlanta. DeKalb County is the second wealthiest black county in the nation." More preposterous is the fact that if the law is renewed, turnout in the Goldwater/Johnson race will continue to affect voting procedures until 2032!
The Civil Rights Commission issued a report in the spring finding that "The Justice Department's enforcement record has shown sharply diminishing activity over the last 40 years during both Democratic and Republican administrations. The percentage of objections interposed has become vanishingly small over the last decade."
Of course. And yet this clearly outdated law -- whose passage would reinforce false claims of continuing white racism by the usual suspects -- was headed for easy passage until someone noticed the bit about multilingual ballots. Under Section 203, ballots and election materials in districts with large immigrant populations must be provided in the immigrants' native tongue. This, in a nation that (at least nominally) requires mastery of English for naturalization. At last, Republicans have found their voices and are raising a cry. Consideration of the bill has been postponed to mid-July, and there is hope that it will not pass in its current form.