Voting Rights Act is no panacea

Posted: Jun 26, 2006 12:01 AM

Now that the Voting Rights Act renewal has been temporarily derailed in the House of Representatives, it's worth taking a moment to consider the baggage that this act has taken on over the years and what it has become today.

The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, is, of course, one of the crown jewels of the civil rights movement. Just mention it and one conjures up images of the great movement. The legislation to reauthorize the act is even called the Fannie Lou Hammer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.

The key original point of the Voting Rights Act was to put teeth into the 15th Amendment that was passed in 1870 after the Civil War. That amendment states, simply enough, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

By addressing commonplace discrimination against blacks at the polls, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, the Voting Rights Act tried to reconcile the realities on the ground with the words of the 15th Amendment. No citizen should be deprived of his or her franchise to vote because of race.

President Johnson's words when he signed the Act were: " ...There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem ... Every American citizen must have the right to vote ..." The core provisions of the Voting Rights Act which prohibited the various obstacles interfering with the right of blacks to vote were enacted permanently. Reauthorization is needed for the temporary measures that were included to assure proper implementation of the law in what was then a hostile environment.

Over time, as these provisions have been reauthorized, and the act subject to amendment and interpretation, quite a new reality has emerged.

In expressing dismay the other day about the House delay on the reauthorization vote, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia observed, "After all, it was during the middle of the last census that the Georgia state Legislature authored a redistricting plan that severely diluted the power of the African American vote."

We have traveled a long and winding road since 1965. Where once the objective was to protect individual black voters, now we have an objective of protecting the "African American vote."

We now have provisions to protect so-called "majority minority" districts and, in effect, the Voting Rights Act has become a vehicle for justifying what amounts to racial gerrymandering.

As in other areas of civil rights law, where the original objective was to guarantee everyone an equal opportunity at the starting line of the race, the Voting Rights Act has evolved into a tool for trying to manipulate the outcome of the race.

So what? Many blacks will argue that the line between racial gerrymandering and commonplace political gerrymandering defies definition. The game is inexorably political and inexorably corrupt, so everyone needs to look out for their interests.

In this sense, I think President Johnson was correct. This is, indeed, "an American problem."

It says something about our great democracy when reality is that somewhere in the range of 99 percent of incumbents get re-elected. This reflects the combined reality of pre-engineered protected districts, campaign finance laws that penalize challengers and competition, and an inside-the-beltway power structure that is wedded to power and interests, and not freedom.

The Voting Rights Act passed at a moment in American history when idealism prevailed. It was a moment when the "dream" consisted of a society of law equally applied to all. This all has cynically morphed into a reality in which law is used for social engineering and political ends and which, in the 2006 version of the Voting Rights Act, produces more segregation.

Fact is, white Republicans are quite pleased with racial gerrymandering because it "bleaches" out surrounding districts also guaranteeing their seats.

Regardless of what Congress chooses to do with the Voting Rights Act, it is questionable that any improvement of note over our current reality will result (although I am sympathetic with moves to eliminate bilingual ballots).

If our concern is really a society that is freer and more just, I think there is one path, and it's not through social or political engineering.

Continue to strive to limit the scope of power of government. Know that our fate lies in our own hands, not in those of politicians.

Take responsibility for your own life and love your neighbor. I think this is the path to realize Dr. King's dream.