America's long and deliberate embrace of segregation was ended by many things, but no law dismantled the Jim Crow South and created real opportunities for black political participation more than the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By tearing down the barriers to equal opportunity at the ballot box, the act removed the essential political mechanisms that maintained segregation and white supremacy. As the Supreme Court declared more than a century ago, the equal right to vote is fundamental because it is "preservative of all rights." Now, with key provisions of the act up for renewal, it is essential that even as concerned Americans focus on necessary fights over Bush's judicial nominees, they keep their eyes on the prize of renewing the Voting Rights Act and insuring the commitment of the Justice Department to its enforcement.
The genius of the act, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary on August 6, was not just that it abolished literacy and other tests that had been used to deny blacks and other minorities the right to vote but also that it prohibited "covered jurisdictions" from implementing new voting practices without clearing them with federal officials. States' rights supporters resented this provision, yet to see its continuing importance one need only examine legislation recently passed in Georgia that bars voters without specific forms of government-issued photo ID. The measure requires Justice Department pre-approval; it remains to be seen whether officials will do the right thing and reject the law. The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke truth when he told this year's NAACP convention, "Our voting rights are under attack, coupled with a growing lack of government enforcement. The silence of the Attorney General and the closed-door policy of the Department of Justice are chilling."
GOP leaders, meanwhile, try to sound supportive of the act's extension even as the details of the proposed legislation remain undefined. House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner promised at the NAACP convention to introduce legislation to extend the act, declaring, "We cannot let discriminatory practices of the past resurface to threaten future gains." A week later he was quoted as saying that the sections of the act that should be renewed are "an open question."
Under the umbrella of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a broad coalition of civil rights, labor and religious groups has come up with a good list of what supporters of the Voting Rights Act should be seeking. It begins with a twenty-five-year renewal of Section 5, the requirement that jurisdictions in nine states with documented histories of discriminatory voting practices, and local jurisdictions in seven others, submit planned changes in their election laws for clearance. Other provisions on the list include renewal of Section 203, which requires that language assistance be provided to voters who need it; renewal of the authorization of the Attorney General to appoint election monitors; creation of a provision for the recovery of expert fees in voting rights litigation in order to assure that costs are not prohibitive; and restoration of stronger standards for protecting voting rights, undermined by Supreme Court decisions in redistricting cases in Louisiana and Georgia in 2000 and 2003.
In 1982, when current Supreme Court nominee John Roberts was arguing against strengthening sections of the act that had been diluted by the courts, aggressive lobbying helped produce overwhelming bipartisan support for a stronger act in the House and eighty-five votes--including that of Strom Thurmond--in the Senate. Now, at a time when the Administration is calling for increased democracy around the world, Republicans as well as Democrats must insure its vitality at home by standing firmly in support of all Americans' right to vote.