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.
In an attempt to help restore some of these people's voting rights, Democrats introduced HR 3335, the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009, in July of last year. It would allow anyone to vote as soon as they were released from incarceration. It has currently not been passed in either the House or Senate. In the meantime, states with criminal-disenfranchisement laws are working to make them stricter. Mississippi, for example, recently added nearly a dozen crimes to its list of disenfranchising offenses, including timber larceny and shoplifting.
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.
Today, in honor of the Voting Rights Act anniversary, President Barack Obama implored every American "to honor the legacy of the brave men and women who came before us ... by exercising the rights they fought so hard to guarantee." As it stands now, however, nobody's expecting much of a black voter turnout come November. The question is, can you blame us?
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter