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The Voting Rights Act, a Half Century Later

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Edward Blum notes at the WSJ, "Fifty years ago, on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, legislation he would later identify as the most important of his political career."
That law is one of the great successes of modern American history.  It made the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment a reality, just as the Civil Rights Act the year before had with the Fourteenth.

Yet in the years since those laws, we have seen the cause of civil rights perverted into the exact opposite of its central premise.  The whole point was to set aside the group labels and treat people as individuals, such that each person would have the rewards or penalties earned by his choices and his conduct and not by his demographic classification.  That was the point of the most important words that Martin Luther King ever spoke -- the words conspicuously absent from his PC memorial -- "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Blum notes that the Voting Rights Act has been used to perpetuate rather than obliterate racial distinctions in voting.

Today Democrats employ the VRA to challenge common-sense voter-ID laws and centuries-old systems in cities and counties where officials are elected at large instead of by specific geographic districts. Republicans use it to pack minorities into ultrasafe, majority-minority Democratic districts, thus making the surrounding areas more Republican.

This is an unfortunate evolution that causes endless amounts of litigation. This is precisely what Justice Clarence Thomas was criticizing when he wrote for the majority Holder v. Hall (1994) that the court had "converted the Act into a device for regulating, rationing, and apportioning political power among racial and ethnic groups."

So today as the nation fittingly commemorates the original accomplishments of the VRA, let us not forget how, over time, some great laws can develop into very bad ones.

Along the same lines, Michael Barone has this book review, also in the WSJ, on Give Us The Ballot by Ari Berman.  The story of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act is an important one.  The abuses before 1965 were horrifying, such as a "literacy test" given to black would-be voters that asked them to identify all 67 county judges in Alabama.  But, Barone notes:

Mr. Berman does not dwell overlong on the success of the VRA, however, or on the increased willingness of whites to vote for black candidates ... Much of "Give Us the Ballot" is devoted to Mr. Berman's unpersuasive argument that we are witnessing a rollback of the Voting Rights Act similar to what happened in the South after Reconstruction. He laments recent state laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls and others reducing the number of days of early voting or barring convicted felons from voting.
Equating the 67-judge question with modest requirements to show ID and not commit felonies is preposterous.  Today's requirements are not targeted at racial groups.  They are targeted at frauds and criminals.  They are judging people on the content of their character and actions, fully consistent with the central purpose of the civil rights movement of half a century ago.

Why the shift in focus today?  A lot of it, I think, has to do with Sixties Envy.  That was a great cause and a great victory in days of yore.  What do we do now?  If you aspire to be a dragon slayer and dragons are extinct, what do you do?  Do you identify a goat, declare it to be a dragon, and slay it to the cheers of a crowd that is also afflicted with Sixties Envy?  Seems to work for a lot of people, but it's not so good for the poor goat.

5 Comments

Do you support permanent disenfranchisement of all persons with a single felony conviction, Kent?

Thanks for the quick response

This is the best response to a comment I've ever seen on this blog. I wish more commenters would follow your lead.

"Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing." -- Robert Charles Benchley

Disenfranchisement should be reserved for certain serious crimes--with a process for getting the franchise back. Murderers, serious recidivists etc. should never get to cast a vote again.

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