Voting Rights Act at 45: What's to Celebrate?

Despite the defeat of Jim Crow and the key role African-American voters had in electing the first black U.S. president in 2008, many blacks still face barriers to voting.

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Voters in 2008 (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Nearly half a century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965, 96 percent of African-American voters voted for a president who looked like them for the first time in the nation's existence. It was a big victory for blacks -- politically minded or otherwise -- and the days prior to it galvanized them in a way they'd never seen before. (In Georgia, 85 percent more blacks voted in the Democratic primary in 2008 than had in 2004. Sadly, the good news ended there. Because although an unprecedented number of African Americans went to the polls for Obama, it was still just 60 percent of those eligible (compared with just under 62 percent of all voters). Besides that, there are also thousands more blacks who have been disqualified from voting due to simple, nonviolent run-ins with the law. In September 2008, a full 8 million of-age African Americans were still not registered to vote.

It's the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act today, but is there really much to celebrate?

In a post titled "How Do You Disenfranchise 1 in 8 Black Men?" Huffington Post blogger Dan Froomkin shed light on one of the most obvious yet little-discussed ways that blacks are barred from casting votes: criminal disenfranchisement laws. Currently, 10 states -- including Florida, Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky -- permanently disenfranchise at least some convicted felons, and 20 more require criminals to complete prison, parole and probation before being allowed to vote again.

These laws, as you might imagine, have had a disproportionate impact on African Americans:

An estimated 5.3 million Americans, 4 million of whom are out of prison, are denied the right to vote based on their felony convictions. About a third of them are black, including 13 percent of all African-American men. ...

In Virginia, almost 7 percent of the entire voting-age population is disenfranchised because of a past felony conviction, and almost 20 percent of the state's African-American population is locked out of the voting booth.

In Alabama and Florida, almost a third of all black men are permanently disenfranchised, according to Human Rights Watch.

Even for the majority of blacks who don't have criminal records, the road to the polls is a difficult one. According to a 2006 study from the Pew Research Center, regular voting is largely a habit of the affluent and educated, with 37 percent of whites self-identifying as regular voters, compared with only 31 percent of blacks. The study also found that the majority of those who didn't vote said they didn't understand politics; others complained that voting didn't help change anything. In black communities, which frequently struggle with inadequate schools, poverty and a justified mistrust of the government, not voting has become practically a matter of course.

Of course, even blacks who are motivated to vote are regularly impeded by underhanded attempts to mislead them. For five years now, lawmakers have attempted to push through the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, to no avail. That means it's still not a federal crime to knowingly lie to voters in order to keep them from the polls, even during a federal election. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin spoke to the Deceptive Practices Act's importance in 2007, citing a false flyer that had been handed out in black communities in Milwaukee during the 2004 presidential election: "It states that you can only vote once a year, and if you're found guilty of anything, even a traffic ticket, that you cannot vote in a presidential election. And that if you violate any of these laws, you can get 10 years in prison and your children can be taken away from you." The flyers bore the false name "Milwaukee Black Voters League."

Then there's the story of ACORN, the nonprofit organization that sought to register minority and low-income voters until it was pointedly -- and falsely -- accused of fraud by Andrew Breitbart. Though ACORN was eventually exonerated of accusations that it broke the law, its vindication didn't come in time to wholly repair its reputation. And so another avenue by which blacks became enfranchised went away.

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