Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fifty Years of the Voting Rights Act


By Krist Novoselic

In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision; which put an end to the doctrine of “separate but equal”. This unanimous ruling struck down the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson — an 1896 decision that propped up a regime of racial segregation lasting for generations. A decade after Brown, vestiges of segregation still existed in state and local election law. As a result, a broad-based, grassroots civil rights movement took action. To this day, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), a centerpiece achievement of the civil rights movement, looms large over elections in the United States. The goal of this landmark legislation is to break down statutory barriers to political representation such as literacy tests, poll taxes and other voting rules meant to exclude. As a result of the VRA, elections today are reflecting more racial diversity than ever before. This demonstrates the success of the VRA.

On the other hand, the status quo of civil rights advocacy is far from dynamic. Civil rights issues have been drawn into the political polarization that currently grips American politics. We find the Act repeatedly manipulated by political elites of both major parties to maximize their electoral strength. Instead of broad-based, grassroots efforts, the battles over civil/voting rights within legislative reapportionment are fought among attorneys. The resulting course of law is a patchwork of civil rights rulings, some at odds with the Act itself. These fights occur at all levels of government; for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; who controls the floors of various state chambers; on down to counties, cities and other local jurisdictions. Those who control and prevail with the drawing maps for this type of election effectively become Masters of the Political Universe. This article looks at how political elites tend to focus on geographical districting with single-seat, winner-take-all elections as a remedy to VRA cases.

While the VRA has been successful with electing minorities, measuring legislative responsiveness in the United States Congress shows poor results. This article examines legislation in the House of Representatives regarding immigration—an important concern to Latino voters—and how this issue is languishing as a result of distortions caused by partisan manipulation of district lines.

I conclude by suggesting some form of modified at-large voting as a way of keeping omnipotent political elites in check.