Obama & Voting Rights Act

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Obama and Voting Rights Act

By Roger Bybee at Apr 30, 2009

Obama win doesn’t change need for voting-rights protection


By Roger Bybee

The election of Barack Obama has as the nation;s first African-American president has persuaded even some liberal proponents of the Voting Rights Act that enforcement of the the law is now less urgent, or even that it can be allowed to lapse. "Obama inexorably shapes how we understand Section 5 today," Professor Ellen Katz of the University of Michigan Law School told the NY Times. Section 5 is the provision that requires statesiwth a history of voting bias to gain federal approval before making any changes in voting law.The Times reported that she believes "that the court should take the unusual step of finding a way to force Congress to take a fresh look at the law, which expires in 2031."


But Obama’s election should not open the door to such naïve illusions, as argued powerfully in Keeping Down the Black Vote by Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine- Minnite, and Margaret Groart, The authors warn against the notion that Obama’s victory shows that "suppression is no longer a problem in American politics….To the contrary," they argue, "voter suppression is embedded in enduing features of the American electoral system."  (See my review forthcoming in May issue of Z magazine)

One of the most important features of the voter-suppression framework is that government agencies are simply not carrying out their mission, as laid out in the 1993 Voter Registration Act, to actively seek to register non-registered voters.. Therefore, registration is "privatized" due to non-compliance by government agencies with their obligations to register voters; the task of registering voters thus falls in most states to under-funded non-profits which must rely on volunteers or low-paid temporary staff. Further, numerous states have unjustifiably early deadlines for voter registration long before election dates, rather than allowing same-day registration as allowed in a handful of states like Wisconsin

Anyone talking about weakening the Voting Rights Act has either not been paying attention to recent elections,  or giving only the most  superficial look at  Obama’s victory. Voter-suppression efforts targeted at African-Americans have intensified, not disappeared, in recent elections. Such suppression perversely became a central part of the Justice Department agenda during the Bush Administration. "As Joe Rich, who headed the Voting Section of the Justice Department during the tumultuous elections of 20000 and 2004 said, "The GOP agenda is to make it harder to vote. You purge voters. You don’t register voters. You pick the states where you go after Democrats."

The Bush Administration’s relentless focus on this voter-suppression agenda was reflected in the selective firings of US attorneys like David Iglesias who refused to buy into the myth of large-scale voter fraud.

Moreover, the large-scale disenfranchisement of African-Americans falsely listed as ineligible felons of the Florida 2000 president election ( see Greg Palast’s The Best Democracy Money Can Buy) and persuasive evidence that the decisive Ohio 2004 presidential race was designed to discourage voting by blacks and rigged against John Kerry ( see Mark Crispin Miller’s Fooled Again) should remind all of the huge stakes involved in voter disenfranchisement.

The efforts to hold down the vote of African-Americans continues even after the election of Obama, with new legislation in Florida designed to make it more difficult for anyone to assist voters.

In the run-up to the 2006 election, the Republicans were counting on restrictive "Voter ID" laws to turn away unwanted African-American, Latino, elderly, and poor white voters. Such laws still remain on the books in half of America‘s states, and serve no purpose except to make it more difficult to vote.

The Republicans skillfully publicized a handful of voter-registration fraud cases–often surfaced by voter-registration groups themselves–into the specter of large-scale election fraud. The GOP successfully pretended that there was no distinction between false voter registration (usually conducted to raise the meager earnings of voter registration workers employed by non-profit groups) and voter impersonation, which has been shown to be nearly non-existent.

Finally, the persistence of highly differentiated voting patterns among white voters –which presumably would also affect laws adopted at the state level by legislators chosen by such electorates–is another powerful argument for continuing to monitor states’ treatment of African-Amerian and Latino voters. In 2008, while Obama captured a smashing 365 electoral votes and 48% of the vote in states not covered by the Voting Rights Act, he got only 26% of the white vote in states with a history of suppressing the black vote. The percentage of pro-Obama white voters in the Deep South: just  14% in Louisiana, 11%  in Mississippi and 10% in Alabama.

Yes, Obama’s election was a milestone for America. But plenty of structural barriers –the lack of government registration efforts, voter ID laws in 25 states, and ineffective enforcement of voting rights as seen in Florida and Ohio–remain in fulfilling the promise of equal voting rights for all.


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