Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, we’re a better, fairer country — no matter what the Democrats say

LBJ and MLK at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.

LBJ and MLK at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.

Within the past two or three hours, I’ve received three releases marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act — from Jim Clyburn, the Hillary Clinton campaign and the S.C. Democratic Party.

Unfortunately, none of these communications are as celebratory as they should be. They’re all, “the Voting Rights Act is great, but our rights are in terrible danger.”

Which is a shame, because the Act deserves an unqualified hurrah.

Clyburn’s release is typical:


WASHINGTON – U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (SC) released the following statement on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

“On this day fifty years ago, surrounded by leaders of both political parties, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. It was a moment worthy of both celebration and reflection. Today, we stand at a similar crossroads.

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of democracy and the foundation upon which all other rights are built. Nearly a century after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which protected the franchise in theory but not in fact, the world watched as peaceful protesters were brutally attacked and beaten by police while marching for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Just five months later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, and millions of African Americans were finally able to exercise their right to vote.

“Sadly, in 2015, this fundamental right is under threat yet again. Two years ago, the Supreme Court gutted a key component of the Voting Rights Act and made it easier for states to discriminate against minority, elderly and disabled Americans by deliberately making it harder for them to exercise their right to vote. Republican leaders in Congress have thus far refused to take up bipartisan legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, as states continue to erect new barriers to the ballot box.

“Today, as we celebrate the proud legacy of the Voting Rights Act and reflect on symbolic victories like the furling of the Confederate battle flag in my home state of South Carolina, we must also take substantive action to restore the Voting Rights Act. I call on my Republican colleagues in Congress to do more than issue statements celebrating the past—I urge them to look to the future and work with us to protect the voting rights of all Americans for the next fifty years and beyond.”

– 30 –

No Democrat, it seems, can mention the Act without also bemoaning either of the following, or both: The first is the Supreme Court opinion that lifted the onerous burden from some jurisdictions (and not others, which is key) to get advance approval from the Justice Department before proceeding with any change to its local laws bearing on voting. The second is the ongoing efforts by Republicans to require picture IDs to vote.

What the Supreme Court did was rule on the constitutionality of two provisions in the Act:

Section 5, which requires certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices; and Section 4(b), which contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.[3][4]

On June 25, 2013, the Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that Section 4(b) is unconstitutional because the coverage formula is based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states.[3][4] The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without Section 4(b), no jurisdiction will be subject to Section 5 preclearance unless Congress enacts a new coverage formula.[5]

… which makes sense to me. What did NOT make sense, what was unfair, was the presumption of guilt of anyone residing within particular geographical areas, based on what other people did or did not do 40 years previously.

Why should these jurisdictions not be governed by the law in the same way that all the other jurisdictions in the country were: by getting in trouble if they actually violated the law, rather than having to get advance permission to act based on a presumption of guilt?

As for the Voter ID laws: As I’ve expressed many times before, I find the positions of both the Republicans and Democrats unpersuasive. The Republicans fail to convince me that there’s this huge fraud problem that we need such laws to address, and the Democrats fail to persuade me that the ID requirement is an onerous burden.

I’ll say this for the Democrats: Between the two positions, theirs (that barriers to voting should be low) sounds way nobler than the Republicans’ (that certain people — a category Republicans would describe, unconvincingly, as people trying to vote fraudulently — should be prevented from voting).

But the bottom line, of course, is that one strongly suspects that on a certain level Republicans want these laws because they think they will increase their chances of winning elections, and Democrats oppose them because they think the Republicans are right about that.

In any case, couldn’t we have just one day in which we celebrate a good thing without adulterating the celebration with another reminder of how awful we think those OTHER people are?

So let’s hear it for the Voting Rights Act: Hip-hip…

36 thoughts on “Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, we’re a better, fairer country — no matter what the Democrats say

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    The thing that really gets me is the hyperbole. Clyburn says: “Today, we stand at a similar crossroads.”

    Really, Jim? REALLY?

    You, a black man who has served in Congress for more than two decades and who is now one of the three most powerful Democrats in the United States House of Representatives, are going to stand there and tell me we’re at “a similar crossroads” to a time when some pissant county official could arbitrarily bar you from voting based on the color of your skin?


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You know, sometimes we just have to face up to the fact that we don’t live in the most exciting, dramatic or monumental times.

      As some of my antiwar friends will remind me at the drop of a hat (usually when they have misinterpreted my reason for making a historical reference), neither ISIL nor al Qaeda is either Nazi Germany nor Imperial Japan.

      And I’m sorry, Democrats, but you are simply not as beleaguered today by those terrible, awful Republicans as black citizens were by Dixiecrats 50 and 60 years ago.

      That’s just the way it is…

      1. Doug Ross

        I hoped you checked your white privilege before writing that.

        Unless people are being prevented from obtaining id, I don’t care to hear the argument that showing an id is suppression. If showing an id is suppression then the Department of Justice should be targeting every airline, bank, bar, hospital, hotel, cruise line, and border crossing. The number of people who a) can’t obtain an id and b) are regular voters is small and growing smaller every single day.

  2. Harry Harris

    The ID requirements, coupled with narrowing voting hours, shortening and limiting early voting, closing some poling places, along with under-the-radar mailings from GOP aligned groups are all voter suppression tactics aimed at lowering turnout among Democratic-leaning voter groups. What the writer of this piece can’t or won’t see is the disproportionate effect of these measures on working poor people. By the way, many of the working poor, especially those working multiple low-wage jobs, don’t have checking accounts, don’t use cruise lines, don’t cross the border, and haven’t had their ID checked in a bar ever. There’s a world out there you apparently don’t see or don’t acknowledge. Many in this world don’t feel much connection to the strata you and I schmooze within, and that may be one reason many of them don’t have the habit of voting as frequently as we do and find even small barriers more daunting than most of us do.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Harry, I’m aware of all those things. If I hadn’t been, my years on the Urban League board, the Community Relations Council, the Hispanic Leadership Council (and no, I’m not Hispanic, either) and working with my friend and colleague Warren Bolton (who informed me that his mother never in her life had a driver’s license, which did take me aback), would have filled me in.

      All of that said, if voter ID were a needful thing (which it isn’t), then I think we could find a way to make it work for everybody so no one is disenfranchised. The challenges it creates are surmountable.

      That’s why I don’t oppose it. Nor do I support it, because the Republicans have never succeeded in convincing me that there’s a need.

      I find the claims of both sides (“Hordes of fraudulent voters!” “Multitudes denied their rights as citizens!”) hyperbolic, and ultimately self-serving in a partisan sense.

      As I said, the Democratic case has somewhat more moral force behind it, but I still think both sides overdramatize….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        There’s a complicating factor in my viewpoint. As I’ve written quite a few times before, I think people should go to SOME trouble — not a lot, but some — in order to vote. There’s a degree of ease in voting — say, having the opportunity to vote on your TV in the middle of watching “American Idol” — that I think is too easy, leading to even more careless, thoughtless voting that we already see. I’m appalled at how lightly too many people already take their responsibility as voters (say, voting for someone just because you’ve heard his name before, or worse, far worse, voting a straight party ticket). I wouldn’t want to in any way encourage even more of a careless, off-hand, spur-of-the-moment approach to voting.

        As I’ve said, I think everybody who is physically able (not prevented by physical impairment, or having to be out of town or at work) should have to get up and go down to the polling place on the appointed day, during the very generous 12-hour period that is provided.

        It’s a quirk of mine. But it makes me less sensitive than I might otherwise be to the “convenience” arguments in favor of early voting, etc….

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Of course it is. But as I say, I make allowances for people who have problems, such as physical impairment or not being able to get off work (which should only be a problem if you work a lot more than an 8-hour shift). Others could no doubt think of other legit exceptions beyond the ones I mention…

            1. Kathryn Fenner

              Lots of people work jobs that take a long time to get to and do not allow more than a lunch break. Getting documentation from government offices that may not be open much longer than the standard business day can be quite difficult.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                And as I said, if you can’t make it, you should be allowed to vote absentee…

                But I do NOT approve of early voting, or “absentee” voting, for people who just don’t feel like standing in line on Election Day.

              2. Doug Ross

                There is no “strain” for 99% of the people. The other 1% are a mythical group of people that apparently can’t be identified. They live in shacks in the woods with no contact with the outside world. They don’t drive, work, bank, get healthcare, own phones, use electricity.

                Whenever this topic comes up, there never seems to be any actual evidence of more than a couple old people who were born in rural areas who can’t get a birth certificate.

                Here’s a simple solution. Pass a law that says ID’s will be required starting in five years and optional until then. Then whenever someone without an ID votes any time in the next five years, take their name and address and have some government agency (DMV? DHEC?) help them get an ID. In fact, we could set up tables at the voting precincts to generate the id’s for those who want them. Grandfather everyone in using their voter registration data.

              3. Brad Warthen Post author

                OR… just don’t pass a Voter ID law.

                Because the GOP is even worse at coming up with convincing evidence of a fraud problem as the Democrats are at coming up with people who can’t meet the requirement…

              4. JesseS

                I can get with most of that, but the absentee thing not so much. If you’ve put enough thought into voting weeks ahead, you have either given it a lot of consideration or you are going to vote straight ticket and will always vote straight ticket. Either way the person doing it weeks ahead is doing it out civic duty, not picking Milk Duds or Thin Mints at the theater.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            If all the people who think their votes don’t count actually voted, their votes would count.

            1. Bill

              Get real.The last election ended before midnight.It was over before it began.Things won’t change until the electoral college is abolished.

            2. Lynn Teague

              Amen, Kathryn. Clearly a lot of people don’t bother because they don’t think their vote matters, or because they don’t think the election matters. You’re absolutely right that if all of these folks voted, their votes would matter, even in our wretchedly gerrymandered districts. There are enough habitual non-voters in most SC districts to shift election results in many districts that are generally thought of as sure things for one party or the other.

              Which brings up gerrymandering. There are few actual “competitive” districts in South Carolina, by careful design. Legislators have chosen their voters, rather than the reverse. Since it isn’t realistic to think that all those voters who could change things will turn out, we at least need districts that are more competitive when most of the “probable” voters turn out. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter has pointed out repeatedly that even her own Democratic caucus keeps quiet about SC’s gerrymandering because it suits individual legislators, even while it condemns her party to fewer seats than they would hold in a more objective system. Current boundaries are what got current legislators elected. They like them, out of sheer self-interest. The worst cost of this gerrymandering is that candidates are not compelled to compete for a wide range of voters, increasing the deadly level of polarization in our politics.

              1. Mark Stewart

                Which is why, more than any other issue, this one should be before the Supreme Court.

                The various legislatures have backed us into a corner where the majority are disenfranchised. This is the most un-Constitutional situation ever legislated.

              2. Clark Surratt

                Lynn, I don’t understand how current gerrymandering “condemns her party” to fewer legislative seats than a “more objective system”. What is a more objective system? Give black districts more white people? White districts more black people? I believe that without gerrymandering to benefit black elected officials, you get more whites than blacks under most schemes. I would like Rep. Ms. Cobb-Hunter or Rep. Clyburn or you to draw me an apportionment map that would help get more blacks elected. I certainly would support it.

              3. Doug Ross

                “I would like Rep. Ms. Cobb-Hunter or Rep. Clyburn or you to draw me an apportionment map that would help get more blacks elected.”

                That shouldn’t be the objective, should it?

                The maps should be drawn using county/city borders as much as possible. They shouldn’t snake along various precincts. Wherever possible, entire towns and cities should be in the same district.

              4. Bill

                There’s also the fact that the two parties are obligated to the same benefactors .I want real choice , not ‘ the lesser of two evils ‘ . If all you really have is two choices, of course things are going to be ‘polarized’ , but needlessly .There’s too little difference between the two to matter…

    2. Doug Ross

      So these people working multiple low wage jobs never have to prove their identity to their multiple employers? They never go to the hospital or ER? Don’t receive government benefits that require some proof of identity? Don’t have electricity or water? Give me a break. There may be a small number of elderly, poor people born in rural areas who don’t have id… but the number is trivial … and there could be a process to help them get id’s if they REALLY wanted one.

      These same people who can’t find the way to obtain an id apparently have a single activity that gets them out of the house – to go vote.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And I hesitate to bring this up, because it sounds terrible to my Democratic friends, but… I’m going to be honest… if a person is SO disconnected from modern, interconnected life that obtaining an ID is just beyond him or her… to what extent is that person able to keep up with current events so as to have a clear idea how he or she even wants to vote? I mean, doesn’t this assume a sort of hermit-like disconnection?

        By the way, I think it was when I was saying something like that when Warren told me about his Mom not ever having a driver’s license, which made me feel terrible, but it IS a thought that occurs to me….

        1. Bill

          You might be ‘connected’ in technological terms , but the internet is melting your brain.
          Being computer illiterate has its advantages(good mental health).

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          You can watch TV or read the paper or listen to the radio without having to truck into a remote state office.

          1. Doug Ross

            “Mavis, it’s 2016.. we need to start planning our quadrennial trip to the voting precinct. I’ll hitch up the horses, you get the provisions ready.”

            The disenfranchised voter who can’t get an id is as common as Sasquatch riding on a unicorn.

            1. Harry Harris

              But much more common than the voter who votes fraudulently, posing as another while presenting his non-picture ID card.

              1. Doug Ross

                So then nobody should care if you have to take the two seconds it takes to show the id as we do all the time. It’s not suppression. It’s a scare tactic by Democrats.

                I’ll believe it’s suppression when Democrats target any other industry or transaction that requires an id.

  3. John

    I think most of us agree that gerrymandering by manipulating physical voting boundaries is destructive to debate during elections and policy after (in some cases it also comes across as cowardly on the part of particular politicians). To me, adding additional barriers to the voting process is best thought of as conditional gerrymandering. My visceral response is to go the other way and open the voting process, not restrict it. Regarding the ID requirement, North Carolina is currently presenting a great example of how that can turn into a slippery slope (pardon the cliche). There, a drivers license will let you vote but a college ID will not, even if the college is a state institution. What purpose does that “gerrymandering” serve?

    I’m not going to make a call on Clyburn’s speech. Like Bush’ ill considered comments from the earlier post, true to form is true to form, so…. Nonetheless I welcome you to apply to Forest Gump standard since that was the one you like for Bush and Clinton. (maybe you could aim even higher? Gilligan perhaps?)

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