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Alabama Says "Trust Us," I Say "No": Why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Is More Necessary Than Ever

02/27/2013 11:21 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

Six months ago, a federal court ruled that electoral maps drawn by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature were nothing but optical illusions of equality. On paper, they looked as if they were Latino voting districts; in reality, they still favored candidates preferred by white voters and were struck down by the U.S. District court in Washington, D.C.

That's August 2012 -- not August 1965.

Even today, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 remains the final defense against exclusion of minority voters.

The legacy of the Voting Rights Act is a powerful one.

The election and reelection of President Barack Obama was achieved by a diverse coalition of voters that would have been unimaginable just one generation ago. In both races, the president won the majority votes of Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, women and young people of all ethnicities and races. Furthermore, studies show that on a national level, the African-American voter turnout rate in November may actually have surpassed that of white voters. According to a study by the Pew Research Center conducted shortly after the presidential election, blacks, who make up 13 percent of the electorate, appeared to have had a higher turnout rate than any other ethnic group or race.

Yet the legacy of segregation and racism also persists.

The democratic action generated by the Voting Rights Act has provoked a virulent anti-democratic reaction.

The Obama-haters and sore losers of fair elections are now blaming the Voting Rights Act for their inability to win popular support. They seek to undermine the Voting Rights Act by manipulating election rules and voting districts, or by challenging the act's provisions in court. Their misleading premise is that threats to minority voters have faded out of existence.

If anything, today's realities call for expanding the reach of the Voting Rights Act. Were the legislation being enacted today, Ohio, for example, would be a prime candidate, due to its vigorous efforts to keep blacks from voting.

After a chaotic process and long lines in the 2004 presidential election, Ohio expanded early voting to 35 days before the presidential election. President Obama's campaign used this time to build a big lead over Senator John McCain, and so what happened next? Ohio Republicans cut back early voting to 11 days and eliminated Sunday voting (Souls to the Polls), when African-American churches historically rally their congregants to vote.

When it comes to voting, we have been asked by conservatives to believe that up is down, night is day, and right is wrong. First they want us to solve a problem that does not exist: so-called voter fraud. Now they are urging the high court to ignore the problems that do exist with voting, such as Texas' disingenuous drawing of maps and literally dozens of other efforts to reduce the minority vote, and pretend they're not there. As Rep. John Lewis, a soldier for civil rights so eloquently wrote recently in The Washington Post, in the course of the 21 hearings it held on the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Congress found that although there has been improvement, "places with a legacy of long-standing, entrenched and state-sponsored voting discrimination still have the most persistent, flagrant, contemporary records of discrimination in this country." Sixteen jurisdictions affected by Section 5 represent only 25 percent of the nation's population, yet they still are responsible for more than 80 percent of voting discrimination lawsuits.

For decades, expanding voter access, increasing opportunities for registration and participation in the nation's democracy have been the single focus of the states and the federal government and the courts. Yet since 2010, there has been a sustained effort on the part of conservative-led state legislatures and Republican governors to reverse course and shrink voter participation.

Now is not the time to turn back the clock. And turning back the clock is exactly what we are faced with as this Supreme Court hears opening arguments today on Shelby County v. Holder. In a supporting brief, Alabama notes significant political progress of blacks, pointing out that its legislature reflects the demographics of the state. A look at statewide officeholders, however, tells a different story; statewide office holders have been no more diverse than the country clubs to which they belong.

Alabama says "Trust us."

Well, I don't.

Those seeking to overthrow the VRA say their states have overcome racism and shouldn't be handcuffed to the past by Congress. I would agree if it were that simple. The era of segregationist governors standing publicly against integration may be long past. But as recent court cases show, less violent and more subtle efforts to thwart the will of voters are alive and well today and constitute a fundamental threat to democracy.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is Chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and founder of the African-American voter Registration, Education and Participation Project.

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