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Redeeming Democracy

February 19, 2007

August 6, 2005 -An anniversary is a time of reflection--a time to analyze the impact of history and clarify where our present course will lead us. As the nation celebrates 40 years since the signing of the Voting Rights Act, it is valuable to contemplate the role of civil rights in our democracy as a way to underscore the fundamental benefit of the Act.

Some historians have said that the Civil Rights Movement redeemed the soul of America. It helped rectify a fault line in the foundation of American democracy. Put plainly, we were a slaveholding nation founded upon the philosophy of individual liberty. Seen through the prism of this dichotomy, the modern-day Civil Rights Movement was an inevitable social and political seismic event that helped bring this nation in closer alignment with its democratic ideals.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA), considered the highest achievement of the Movement, has been hailed as one of the most effective, influential pieces of legislation Congress has passed in the last 50 years. In 1964 there were only 300 black public officials nationwide. Today there are more than 9100, including 43 members of Congress. The Act abolished the legalized hypocrisy of poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and dismantled Jim Crow segregation. Its expansion in 1975 to include language minorities helped create nearly 6000 Latino state or federal officials today, including 21 members of Congress. The VRA changed America. It made America a better place. It made America a more consistent democracy.

Shortly, several sections of the Voting Rights Act will expire. One of the most powerful is Section 5 which requires that states and localities with a history of voting discrimination submit any changes to voting plans for review by the Department of Justice or a federal court before they are implemented. There are many who suggest that Section 5 is now irrelevant, yet extensive, mounting contemporary evidence suggests there are still insidious attempts to deny equal access to the voting booth.

The Georgia state legislature recently passed a new law requiring all voters to present government issued photo identification before voting. This is a significant departure from current law which allows 17 other forms of identification, like birth certificates or bank statements. Limiting the forms of acceptable identification will have a discriminatory effect on African Americans voters because they are five times less likely than whites to have a drivers' license. To make matters worse, there are only 56 motor vehicle offices servicing 159 counties in the state, none of which are located in the Atlanta area where a significant number of African Americans live. Without VRA preclearance, this would be the law in Georgia today. Justice Department review serves as an important line of defense for Georgia voters.

In 1975 Congress included two counties in South Dakota in the preclearance mandates of Section 5 because of their on-going discrimination against Native American voters. In retaliation, the state attorney general advised state officials to ignore the mandate. Over the next two decades, South Dakota passed over 800 voting regulations and statutes without submitting them for federal review as required. As recently as 2002, officials in Buffalo County, packed nearly all of its Native American majority into a single voting district to insure that they could control only one seat on the three-member county commission. After a suit was brought in 2003, the county was ordered to comply with Section 5 as a part of a settlement and admitted its plans were discriminatory.

As a result of lawsuits brought by Puerto Ricans throughout the early 1970's proving that New York's English literacy requirement discriminated against Spanish speakers, three counties-New York, Bronx, and Kings--are now covered under Section 5 preclearance. Ever since then, the Justice Department has consistently objected to every districting plan those counties submitted for local and state legislative seats.

Another expiring provision is the language assistance section of the Act. Litigation based on the provision led to mandated Chinese-language ballots in New York City, helping more than vote 100,000 Asian Americans not fluent in English to vote. In 2001, John Liu was elected to the New York City Council, becoming the first Asian American elected to any legislative office in the city with the nation's largest Asian American population.

These are just a few of the hundreds of contemporary challenges to the right to vote that command attention, without mention of recent judicial decisions intended to weaken the power of the VRA. All of these developments signal the continuing schism in the American identity, the inherent tendency to perpetuate dualism in American values and American policy. Some of us think that when the Founding Fathers declared this a democratic republic, that our task was done. But democracy is not a state; it is an act. It is a series of conscious choices that lead successively to a continually more enlightened society. Every action we make as American citizens, every policy of government, every tactic of business, every step we take collectively and individually affects our ability to meet our highest destiny as a nation.

That is why the protections of the Voting Rights Act are so important. That is why they must be not only reauthorized but fixed to retain their intended power. The VRA keeps us true to our democratic ideals as a nation. The vote is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy. We should commemorate the historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement, but we must do more than that. We must actualize the values of our founding through every act of government, in every state, in every city, in every locality across America to continually establish our commitment to justice.