By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act must be renewed every twenty five years. In 1981 despite some grumbles and idle threats to oppose its renewal from a few in the Reagan administration, President Reagan dutifully signed the renewal legislation. A quarter century later, again despite the grumbles and idle threats from some in Congress to delay or even block passage, President Bush again dutifully signed the renewal legislation with a big congratulatory celebration at the White House signing. The renewal of the Voting Rights Act by two conservative GOP presidents seemed to assure that any effort to scrub the Voting Rights Act from the federal books was a pipe dream.
However, that may soon change. A federal lawsuit by Shelby County, Alabama has quietly worked its way up through the appeals courts. The county wants much of the Act dumped and has recycled the same old argument that it is outdated, discriminatory, and a blatant federal intrusion into states rights. In times past, this claim would have gone nowhere. But during the GOP presidential debates Texas Governor Rick Perry lambasted the Act. That squarely put it back into public focus and political play. State Attorney Generals in three states have endorsed the Alabama county’s challenge. The announcement that Attorney General Eric Holder will vigorously enforce provisions of the Voting Rights Act to prevent voter suppression raised an additional howl from conservatives.
Then there’s the Supreme Court. There is little to stop the court from taking a fresh look at the Act, and even ruling that the key requirement that Southern states get “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes in its voting rights laws and procedures is unconstitutional. There are a slew of other challenges, in addition to Alabama’s, to the Act that could give the court’s five conservative judges more than enough ammunition to scrap the Act.
The crop of Tea Party driven House Republicans could give the court even more cover to question the constitutionality of the Act. GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul would be one of those. He’s publicly boasted that he would not have backed the 1964 Civil Rights Act if he had been in Congress then. On the fortieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act signing in 2004, Paul opposed the symbolic congressional resolution lauding it. Though Bush signed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, a core of House Republicans stalled the legislation for more than a week and demanded that hearings be held. They used the same old argument that it punishes the South for past voting-discrimination sins, and they didn’t like the idea of bilingual ballots.
A renewed assault on the Act fits right into the Tea Party’s endless attacks on the alleged federal government for over intrusiveness. It would also be set against the backdrop of the hotly contested 2012 battle for the White House and conservatives efforts to maintain or expand their congressional numbers.
The GOP has already pecked at eroding the Act with the rash of photo identifications laws that the GOP governors and GOP controlled state legislatures have enacted. They have one aim, and that’s to discourage and damp down the number of minority and poor voters that overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
Despite the solid bipartisan support that the Act got in prior congresses and from GOP presidents, the Act has always been more controversial than many have believed. The popular myth is that congressional leaders were so appalled and enraged at the shocking TV clips of Alabama state troopers battering civil rights marchers in Selma in April 1965 that they promptly passed the landmark law that restored voting rights to Southern blacks. What’s forgotten is that the marchers were there in the first place because the bill was badly stalled in the Senate and the House. It took nearly five months to get the bill passed.
Then Senate minority leader, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, heaped amendments on the bill that included scrapping the poll tax ban, adding exemptions and escape clauses for Southern counties, and excluding all states outside the South. House Republicans tacked more amendments on the bill to weaken it. The fight over these amendments dragged on for weeks in Congress. The biggest fight, though, was over the poll tax ban. The tax was the most odious and hated symbol of Southern racial exclusion. Civil rights leaders were enraged when the Senate refused to eliminate the poll tax, arguing that it wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. House leaders agreed.
There’s no real threat that a majority in Congress will switch gears and vote to scrap the Act in the immediate future. However, the action of many state officials, attorney generals and the always looming shadow of the Supreme Court are strong warnings that the Voting Rights Act could again be in the sights of the GOP.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter.