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RICKEY BOOKER JR.: The gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act

There’s so much more still worth fighting for by Rickey Booker Jr. | November 19, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution was adopted with the intent to give African American men the right to vote. This amendment stated that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

However, the amendment did not provide enforcement of voting rights and the rise of Jim Crow created the decades-long practice of discriminatory state and local processes that intentionally discouraged, intimidated and blocked Black men from voting. After much oppression, struggle and fight, Black women and men did not get the full and equal right to vote until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

My heart hurts when I look at the numerous ways state and local government officials and volunteer citizens made sure that Black folks (like my ancestors and my family elders who are still alive) would experience voter suppression. Some of the ways Black voters were oppressed consisted of poll taxes, literacy tests and prohibiting convicted felons the right to vote. Today, we have a rise of similar voter suppression tactics such as voter ID laws, gerrymandering, poll closures and long voting lines in low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods. The passing of the Voting Rights Act was to prevent these kinds of tactics. As America is becoming more and more diverse by race and ethnicity, there have been intentional efforts to suppress votes of those who some see as a threat to their view of American democracy.

After recognizing the continued racial discrimination and suppression tactics at voting polls, congressional Republicans and Democrats in Congress made a bipartisan agreement that the 1965 Voting Rights Act needed to be renewed for 25 more years. The vote was 390-33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate. Republican President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, stating it was "an example of our continued commitment to a united America where every person is valued and treated with dignity and respect." Nonetheless, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, on the basis that the formula identifying jurisdictions with problematic racial and discriminatory histories used outdated discrimination data from 1975.

This decision by the Supreme Court left room for Congress to update and rewrite the formula that determines covered jurisdictions. In 2017, the House of Representatives rewrote the formula via the Voting Rights Amendment Act and passed it 228-187. The bill was then sent to the Senate for passage. To this day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to even bring it to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Asked for his reasoning for not allowing senators their legal obligation to vote, he stated, "because I get to decide what we vote on."

His refusal to bring this bill to the Senate floor for a vote means the states identified as having histories of voter suppression can maintain or expand them, which we saw in the 2018 election cycle and saw again in the 2020 election cycle. In 2018, voter registration problems, voter purges, strict voter ID and ballot requirements, voter confusion, poll closures, long lines and gerrymandering were reported. These issues persist today in many Southern states.

The fact that Mitch McConnell denies senators the right to vote on a bill he and his colleagues unanimously passed in 2006 shows that he is living up to the title of his memoir, "The Long Game." As America continues to become more and more diverse and progressive, McConnell has developed a strategy to block bills that can produce progress for people of color. His plan is to hold on to power as long as possible while packing the federal courts with far-right conservative judges so that there will be a continued rule from the bench for generations to come.

As many people have declared, this is not about Democrat or Republican; it's about right versus wrong. While disenfranchisement is a major reason people of all races and ethnicities are taking it to the streets to protest police brutality against Black folks, Black and Brown people are not the only ones affected. Rev. William Barber states that racism is "not just against Black people, it's against humanity, it's against the democracy, it hurts everybody."

When people say this election was the most important election in several generations, it is without a doubt the truth. Whether you are a die-hard Democrat or a committed Republican, one thing we should all agree on is that a fair election allows everyone in our democracy to cast their ballot without rights being denied or abridged based on one's race, color, class, previous condition of servitude or gender identity.

I challenge us all to stand up for what is right and fight for those who may not be able to fight for themselves.

Rickey Booker Jr., Ed.D., is a trainer, facilitator and consultant with the IDEALS Institute at the University of Arkansas Office for Diversity and Inclusion. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of the University of Arkansas.


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