In 1988, during the first election I was old enough to vote in, Republican Party officials in Orange County sent uniformed guards to polling places in Latino neighborhoods. Once there, according to news reports, the guards displayed English and Spanish language signs saying it was illegal for noncitizens to vote, sat alongside election officials at some polls, and reportedly wrote down license numbers and questioned voters about their citizenship.
The sad fact is that, while demographics are making their job more difficult, in the intervening 25 years those who would try to silence minority voices at the polls haven't changed their minds, they've just changed their tactics. Instead of guards in blue uniforms, they are now turning to conservatives in black robes.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote.
This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the fate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires the Justice Department to issue a "preclearance" of any changes regarding redistricting or other kinds of voting laws in a number of jurisdictions nationwide, mostly in the South, but also in several counties in California.
When he introduced the Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson said, "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right."
During recent oral arguments before the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to dismiss the Voting Rights Act as some period piece with "a wonderful name" that fuels "a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement."What it really fuels is protection from racial exclusion:
- Exclusion in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature passed a law that would have forced many poor and minority voters to travel to State Public Safety Offices -- and pay up to $22 for copies of their birth certificates -- before being able to get a voter ID.
- Exclusion in Florida, where the Republican governor and Republican mayor of Miami Dade did their best to reduce early voting time -- even stranding hundreds of potential voters in line -- and where Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Haitian-American woman, had to wait in line for hours to vote.
- Exclusion in California, where, when I went to vote last June, I was continually asked for my ID and prevented from voting in violation of state law -- until another poll worker finally came over and said, "He's right. You can't ask for an ID. And he's on page six of the ballot."
What if I hadn't been on the ballot or been a recognizable individual, or had not been someone fully aware of the law? Minority voters shouldn't be at the mercy of individual poll workers. Minority communities should not be at the mercy of redistricting schemes that ultimately seek to disenfranchise them and dilute their influence.
That's what the Voting Rights Act prevents, and that's why it has such a prominent target on its back in 2013.
Americans need to push back strongly against anyone who would weaken the Voting Rights Act or who propose electoral policies that are at best simply divisive, and at worst direct attacks on the ability of people to participate in the process.
Without a hint of irony, this week the Republican National Committee released an "autopsy" of its 2012 campaigns. While it ignores many of the obvious reasons for Republican losses around the country last November, the report does spend a considerable amount of time paying lip service to the need for the GOP to better connect with minority, female and young voters.
Here's an idea for the RNC and for conservatives like Justice Scalia -- if you want to connect with minority voters, maybe letting them actually vote would be a good place to start.
After all, almost 50 years later, there is still no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.
This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.