August 5, 2005

Commentary:

Protecting the Right to Vote on the 40th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

By Congressman Bob Filner

In August, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965-one of the most effective and crucial civil rights laws ever enacted. It worked to end techniques that had been used for decades to deny millions of Americans the right to vote.

In 1961, I joined the Freedom Rides and was arrested and imprisoned for my participation in the effort to end segregation in America. As a young teen, I was drawn early to the rousing speeches and inspiring writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The thousands of marches, boycotts, sit-ins and freedom rides led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  

For a hundred years after the Civil War, millions of African Americans were denied the fundamental right to vote, despite the 15th Amendment to the Constitution that prohibited the denial of this right on the basis of race. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses—as well as violence—were used to deny African American citizens the right to vote in many Southern states.

During the 1960s to secure this most basic right involved the efforts of many brave Americans across the country. The cost was high: church burnings, bombings, shootings, and beatings. 

It required the ultimate sacrifice of ordinary Americans:  James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner who simply sought to register voters. Jimmie Lee Jackson whose death precipitated the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. These names are forever etched in our nation’s history. They died for the cause of freedom. 

John Lewis, now a Congressman from Georgia and one of the most courageous figures of our time, received a beating that fractured his skull on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday”— March 7, 1965. The events of “Bloody Sunday” aroused the conscience of the nation. Under President Lyndon Johnson’s strong leadership, the nation responded and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act provided extensive protections by prohibiting any voting practice that would abridge the right to vote on the basis of race. Any “test or device” for registering or voting was outlawed, effectively abolishing poll taxes and literacy tests. It provided for criminal and civil sanctions against persons interfering with the right to vote.

The Voting Rights Act also required state and local political divisions with a documented history of discrimination to submit any potential changes to their voting laws to the U.S. Attorney General or to federal judges for “pre-clearance” or approval before the laws take effect, thereby ensuring that the federal government has the essential ability to prevent discriminatory voting laws. Unlike other parts of the Voting Rights Act, the “pre-clearance” provisions expire in 2007.

Our nation’s history is one of expanding rights. In 1975, the Voting Rights Act was amended to require bilingual ballots and voting assistance in areas with significant language minority citizens. English-only ballots had the effect of serving as literacy tests for Latinos and Native Americans who were non-English speaking voters. These bilingual requirements expire in 2007. In addition, the Voting Rights Act was amended in 1982 to protect the rights of voters with disabilities. 

Thanks to the successes of the Voting Rights Act, today there are 81 members of Congress of African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American descent, and thousands of others in elected offices around the country.

Despite this progress, voter suppression continues. For instance, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that widespread voter disenfranchisement took place in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, not only among African American voters, but also among thousands of Spanish-speaking voters. 

We must honor the legacy of all who died in the struggle for civil rights. We must renew our commitment to remove obstacles to the right to vote. I am committed to protecting the right to vote, and will work to reauthorize and strengthen those sections of the Voting Rights Act that will expire in 2007.

Congressman Bob Filner represents California’s 51st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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