Voting rights issue mobilizing activists

Civil rights advocates ask for extension of 1965 law's provisions

July 26, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

With the approaching 40th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act, civil rights activists are urging Congress to reauthorize provisions of the law set to expire in two years and mobilizing to clear up misconceptions - including a rampant e-mail hoax warning that blacks are about to lose their right to vote when the act expires in 2007.

The rumor, of course, is false. The 15th Amendment guarantees protection against discrimination in voting.

But the 1965 law includes several additional provisions designed to prevent discrimination, which will expire unless Congress moves to reauthorize them within the next two years. They include poll watchers, federal approval of changes in voting procedures such as altering polling place locations, and requiring multilingual ballots in places with a significant number of people who speak limited English. (Montgomery County is one of the counties required to provide Spanish-language ballots.)

Today, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund will sponsor a conference of multiethnic civil rights groups focused on the act.

A group of advocates called the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act is holding hearings to dispel the e-mail myth in cities nationwide. It will also compile examples where the expiring provisions have ensured fair practices, details they hope will encourage congressional reauthorization.

And on Aug. 6 in Atlanta, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and civil rights groups will lead a march to drum up grass-roots support.

"The Voting Rights Act has really been the engine of political opportunity in terms of representation for African-American and other minority groups," said Theodore Shaw, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It is a very complicated area of law, and the statute itself is complex. The challenge is for lawyers to try to explain it in everyday terms."

For voters who experienced the turbulent civil-rights era South, the issue is not about mundane legal terminology but basic rights.

Anne Emery, a retired assistant superintendent of Baltimore schools, grew up in rural Alabama. She recalls that in 1950, she paid a $4 poll tax to register to vote - but only after a white person was willing to sign an affidavit "vouching" for her.

"It was humiliating," she said. "But there was no activism then. You just accepted the lay of the land, and if you wanted to vote, you paid your poll tax."

These days, Emery is an activist in her own right. She has taken teenagers from her Baltimore church to visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., site of the infamous Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 during which deputies beat demonstrators marching for voting rights.

Advocates will hold up experiences like Emery's this anniversary, but they also will seek out recent allegations of voting intimidation in hopes of proving that the expiring provisions are still necessary to protect voters.

"In 1965, it was about vote denial, today we have what we call second-generation discrimination, or vote dilution or limiting the effectiveness of minority voting," said Debo Adegbile, associate director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Widely considered one of the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to end discriminatory practices that had persisted despite the passage of the 15th Amendment a century earlier. It helped not just black voters in the South, but Latinos, Native Americans and other minorities.

The provision that requires jurisdictions to obtain federal approval for voting changes was designed to be temporary, with the hope that discrimination would diminish over time. It was extended in 1970, 1975 and 1982.

Some officials have suggested that federal approval for voting changes imposes an unfair burden on jurisdictions. Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Edward Blum, a senior fellow with the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, criticized politicians for vocally backing reauthorization.

"Draconian federal intrusion into local elections was justified when it was the only way to enfranchise Southern blacks - but 40 years on, it's an unconstitutional travesty," they wrote in a Wall Street Journal column this month.

Civil rights groups say recent U.S. Supreme Court cases have narrowly defined when race-based remedies can be used.

"Ideally, we will get to a point where we won't need these provisions, but the time is not there yet," Adegbile said.

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