The 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act: A Noble Act That is No Longer Recognizable

The law has gone far beyond what Martin Luther King, Jr. originally intended. It is long overdue to return it to its original intentions.

By Rachel Alexander Published on August 6, 2015

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that was passed to stop racial discrimination in voting. It prevents state and local governments from enacting laws that result in discrimination against racial or language minorities, such as requiring literacy tests to vote. Spearheaded by organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the effort finally reached a critical mass of support in the wake of organized demonstrations by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, where they clashed with police over efforts to register blacks to vote.

The confrontations there culminated in “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, as police sprayed tear gas and trampled demonstrators on a march from Selma to Montgomery. The Voting Rights Act was proposed in Congress two days later.

It was tough getting it passed, primarily due to opposition from Democrats in the South. Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC) argued that the bill was unconstitutional because it deprived states of their right under Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution to establish voter qualifications and because the bill’s special provisions targeted only certain jurisdictions. Ultimately, the Senate passed the bill by a 77-19 vote, with a far higher percentage of Republicans voting yes (30-2) than Democrats (47-16). Similarly, in the House, the bill passed 333-85, with Republicans split 112-24 but Democrats split 221-61.

Unfortunately, while the spirit of the law is noble, it has been pushed to overbearing limits. Certain areas of the country are subject to onerous requirements, known as “Section 5 preclearance,” that must be complied with in order to change any of voting procedures. Any change they make, no matter how small or unrelated to race, must be approved (precleared) by the federal government first. Locations that fall under preclearance were chosen either due to prior reports of racial discrimination or for having a large proportion of language minorities. The law contains a mechanism for jurisdictions to eventually opt out, if they can prove they’ve had no record of discrimination for five years, but it’s rarely been successfully used due to the impossibly high standard required. For example, if a Spanish-speaking person makes a complaint that they had difficulty understanding something at a polling place, that counts as a strike against the jurisdiction.

Consequently, states like Arizona — which had no history of voting discrimination, simply a large Spanish-speaking population — are forced to spend millions of dollars making elections compliant with far-reaching requirements. Even though fewer people vote in person at polling places anymore, and an even smaller percentage of them speak Spanish, vast numbers of polling locations are required to have Spanish-speaking workers. Ballots are required to be printed in both Spanish and English, creating long monstrosities that are expensive to print and mail.

The Voting Rights Act was passed to stop racial discrimination, not offer bilingual services. If there are real language difficulties, foreign-language speakers can be accommodated using methods that aren’t crippling to taxpayers, such as by having them come into elections departments for help with their ballots. The original Voting Rights Act did not even include language minorities; it was added by an amendment in 1975.

Congress has had the opportunity to end the preclearance requirements several times over the years, but continues extending it. Each time a sunset provision comes up, special interests and race-baiters like Al Sharpton speak in broad rhetoric about racial discrimination, ignoring the reality of what preclearance means. Afraid of being called a racist, politicians dutifully vote to extend the provision. The law has gone far beyond what Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned. Congress needs to develop a spine and return it to its original, noble purpose.

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