Chicken Littles and voting rights

Jul 26, 2006 at 12:00 am

Sometimes people forget.

When President Lyndon Johnson won passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it was because it had become painfully obvious by then that black Americans, particularly black Americans in the South, didn't stand a chance of being afforded the most basic and elemental American right — the right to vote — without heavy-handed assistance from the highest levels of government. Johnson, who had grown up dirt-poor in the Texas hill country, was good at being heavy-handed. Given his background it isn't exactly shocking that he had some racist attitudes of his own to wrestle with and overcome. But as someone who never forgot what poverty and degradation could do to a human being, he was probably better equipped than any president since to recognize what those ills could do to the nation.

After the Civil War, African-Americans in the former Confederacy voted in record numbers. Naturally this made white folks nervous because they knew the power of the vote, and, with the withdrawal of federal troops in 1876, they set about putting black folk back in their place — as close to their former condition of slavery and as far from the ballot box as possible.

Poll taxes and literary tests were among the gentler barriers to keep blacks from voting; when those failed there were lynchings and other forms of violence.

Only after the civil rights movement of the 1960s did those barriers fall. Even with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, years remained before black people could vote in the South without unreasonable fear of being harassed or intimidated. But vote they did, resulting in the election of record numbers of black officials.

Some might say those days of intimidation aren't over yet. Poll taxes, literacy tests and thugs at the polling place may be a thing of the past, but where there's a will there's a way. The powers that be can still try to disenfranchise black voters when they want to. For example, some Southern Republican legislators angrily protested that renewal of the Voting Rights Act unfairly punishes their states for long-remedied past crimes committed by folks who have long since left the scene. But Georgia offers proof that the so-called "New South" isn't necessarily as new as some would like to believe.

Renewal of the Voting Rights Act "is blatant discrimination ... and unconstitutional," Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., is quoted as saying in several news reports. "Georgia now outperforms the nation in every area of black voting — turnout, registration and the success rate of black candidates. Clearly, by all measurable standards, the injustices targeted under the Voting Rights Act have been remedied."

Well, we still have injustices to worry about.

Georgia passed a law last year that bars people from voting without government-issued photo identification, which causes far more problems for black — and elderly — voters in that state than for anyone else.

"According to census data, black Georgians are far less likely to have access to a car than white Georgians, so they are at a distinct disadvantage when driver's licenses have an important role in proving people's eligibility to vote," The New York Times countered in an editorial.

"Under the Voting Rights Act, Georgia's law must be cleared by the Justice Department before it can take effect," the Times contended. "There can be little doubt that the law would have 'the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race,' and it therefore must be rejected. But in the current Justice Department, there is a real danger that this decision will be based on politics rather than law.

"Georgia's new identification requirement is part of a nationwide drive to erect barriers at the polls. Indiana also recently passed a new photo-identification requirement, and several other states, including Ohio, are considering the addition of such requirements."

At the time of the editorial, the Justice Department was deciding whether Georgia's new law violated the Voting Rights Act. The department has since decided that it does not, and so the law stands. And, of course, we know that so-called voting "irregularities" were so pervasive during the 2000 presidential election in Florida that they may have cost Al Gore the presidency — and the disenfranchisement of black voters in the state had a lot to do with those "irregularities."

For example, in Florida's Gadsden County, which has the highest percentage of black voters in the state, one in eight votes cast during the 2000 election was never counted. Many voters wrote in "Al Gore," but the optical reading machines rejected them because "Al" was considered a "stray mark." In majority white Tallahassee, however, the vote spoilage was nearly nonexistent. In Tallahassee, voters placed their ballots directly into optical scanners, and if they added a stray mark, they were given another ballot with instructions showing how to correct it.

When Bush was re-elected in 2004, voting problems were documented in Ohio, though not quite so blatantly or extensively. And there is a troubling debate over whether that election was indeed stolen.

So two weeks ago, the House voted 390-33 to renew the Voting Rights Act, and without any of the troubling amendments pushed by some Republicans who ultimately backed down on a promised floor debate. And in the Senate, the bill passed 98-0 with President George Bush's promise to sign it.

The notion that the Voting Rights Act was imperiled and might expire in 2007 has been swirling around in the black civil rights community for years. Initially those who warned that the Congress could not be trusted to restore the act without considerable pressure were dismissed as being a little too paranoid. Of course Congress would renew it.

But just when it was starting to look like those folks could be written off as Chicken Littles, legislators like Norwood started exercising their lungs complaining that the act was unfair and needed to be altered. Then the Democrats — and supportive Republicans — started exercising their lungs saying that they wouldn't agree to any weakened version of the act. Suddenly the Chicken Littles were thrusting their chests out, pointing to the dispute as proof positive that African-Americans were on the verge of losing their right to vote.

So much for Chicken Little. The sky is still up there and black folks can still vote down here. Personally, I don't think the Voting Rights Act was ever in much danger. Only the craziest right-wing Republicans want to get saddled with trashing something like that, especially when the party is working overtime reaching out to black voters who feel the Democratic Party has been taking them for granted for too long. Hell, just last week Bush spoke to the NAACP for the first time since he became president. His speech went over like a lead balloon, but nothing compared to what would have happened if he had to stand in front of the nation's oldest civil rights organization trying to explain why his party figured it was time to scrap the Voting Rights Act.

But black folks in Gadsden County had their voting privileges messed with six years ago with the act in full force. The biggest threat to the black vote isn't Southern states itching to turn back the clock. The biggest threat is black folks who don't vote, and black folks who fail to realize we will always have to fight to protect that vote. I'm glad the Voting Rights Act is in the clear, but that hardly means we are.

Let's not forget this.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]