Do We Still Need a Voting Rights Act?

Natasha Shah ’15
Staff Writer 

In 1965, after a contentious debate, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which essentially outlawed discriminatory practices pertaining to voting. The Act followed in the wake of the 1964 Presidential Election during which it was dangerous, and in some cases even impossible, for African Americans to cast their votes. After the election, several civil rights organizations joined together to pass legislation that would ensure the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities. President Lyndon Johnson brought the Act to Congress, where it was eventually enacted into law.

The Act itself consists of two provisions: Section 2 and Section 5. Section 2 contains general prohibitions against voting discrimination while Section 5 requires that the United States Department of Justice “pre-clear” any attempt to change voting qualifications, prerequisites for voting or standards, practices or procedures with respect to voting. The Act echoes the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which say that everyone who is a citizen of the United States is entitled to vote. The Act has come to attention recently, however, because the Supreme Court is hearing cases on whether Section 5 of the Act should be overturned.

Were the Supreme Court to say that the entire Act should be overturned because we no longer need an Act to ensure that everyone has the right to vote, it would come across as being a progressive step in our country’s history. However, to say that a specific section of the Act, and arguably the most important section, should be overturned seems to be more of a step backward than a leap to progress. In 2006, Congress had reapproved section 5 of the Act for another 25 years. Yet recently, the state of Alabama filed suit saying that the provision was proving to be burdensome and that it should be overturned since it is no longer necessary. Arguments in the Supreme Court have raised eye-opening questions about the status of racism and minority rights in our country. Most notably, Judge Antonin Scalia argued that the Act should be overturned because it promotes a sense of “racial entitlement.” One would think that in the 21st century, accusations of racial entitlement and minority privilege would no longer be taken seriously. Considering the inequalities that minorities have faced and still continue to face, it seems obvious that those with the responsibility for upholding minority rights would try their best to do so. While there is no risk of our country returning to the way it was before 1965, getting rid of Section 5 still sends a message that racial issues have taken a backseat. Considering how hard people fought for this act to be passed, it would be an insult to their memories to overturn it. Changing the Act might make it easier for states during the election process, but the message it sends to our country is not consistent with the rhetoric of civil rights and equality for all.

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