100 Days -- that is how long President Barack Obama has been in office.
100 years ago, no one would have predicted we, as a nation, would have
elected an African-American President. 100 days into the first
African-American President's administration, the Supreme Court will hear
arguments challenging a key provision of the very Act that helped make his
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark civil rights statute that
assures an inclusive democracy, is being assailed by far right groups who
are stuck in the 18th Century. Millions of people - white, black,
Hispanic, Asian and Native American - rejoiced in the breakthrough
election of President Obama. It was the shattering of the highest glass
political ceiling and his victory, our victory, was in no small part
because of the doors that were flung open to all Americans to
participate in the electoral process.
The Voting Rights Act's section 5 requires that districts and
jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination submit all
proposed changes to the Department of Justice for approval-and it
prevents hundreds of acts of voter discrimination in every election
Our far right opponents are not resting. Their strategy was to find a
test case from a tiny, virtually all white municipal district in Texas, to
have section 5 - often called the heart of the voting rights act- declared
unconstitutional. Their claim is that we don't need the Voting Rights Act
anymore because we have successfully elected an African American president.
I ask you, if we don't need the Voting Rights Act anymore then why do we
continue to have dialogue and discussion about voter intimidation and
suppression? Why are we hearing about voters of color being purged
and removed from the registration rolls? Why are we still talking about voters
who happen to have a similar name to an incarcerated felon being turned
away at the polls? Why are we still seeing states not complying with federally
mandated voting law changes like the Help America Vote Act and the
National Voter Registration Act? Finally, why are we still seeing racially
polarized voting in those states affected by Section 5?
What they fail to examine is the lack of change in voting patterns
amongst whites in the states covered by Section 5. President Obama
received 47 percent of the white vote in non section 5 states. But in
the states covered under the Act, he only received 26 percent. In
Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, he garnered an average of about
15 percent of the white vote. Obama did among whites than John Kerry
in several of the covered jurisdictions , despite a nationwide Democratic
swing. Race seems the best explanation for this difference ...doesn't look
like we are post racial yet.
As recently as the 2008 elections, counties covered under section 5 were
the scenes of voter intimidation. In Boynton, Florida, people went
through African American neighborhoods stating that anyone who has
outstanding warrants or owes child support or even has an outstanding
traffic ticket would be arrested if they attempted to vote. Police
officers were stationed outside of polling places. Officials in Waller
County Texas, have tried to prevent students at the historically Black
Prairie View A&M University from voting for the past three decades. The
county only abandoned this effort to suppress Black turnout when the
university chapter of the NAACP brought a Section 5 enforcement action.
In other parts of the country, Section 5 has made sure that Hispanic, Vietnamese
and other people of color have had access to a free and fair voting
process. It is obvious that voter intimidation still exists and Section
5 of the Voting Rights Act must remain intact.
Dr. Martin Luther King stated that our lives begin to end the day we
become silent about things that matter. As a nation, we must remain
vigilant as the Supreme Court ponders this case. We don't know yet what
will emerge from this new configuration of the Supreme Court. We can
only hope that they recognize the fundamental value of the basic right
to vote for all Americans, unfettered by the barriers of racism. In
2006, we advocated successfully for this provision to be continued and
the extension was signed by then-President Bush. Now is the time for the Court
to reject this latest threat to realizing our promise of democracy and assure
every American can vote.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is President and CEO of the NAACP