Reconciling America’s Voting History
By: Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen)
As many of you are aware, the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which contained an outdated elections formula based on data from the Civil Rights era. This landmark decision also rendered Section 5 of the Act invalid, requiring former Confederate States and a few outliers such as Alaska to obtain federal preclearance or approval from the U.S. Justice Department before making changes to state voting laws.
Prior to the ruling, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required states formally with poor race relations –Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – to gain federal approval for any new changes to voting laws.
Based on elections data from the 1960’s presidential elections, Congress reauthorized this antiquated coverage formula in 2006 without analyzing current elections trends. According to the Heritage Foundation, “If Congress had updated the coverage formula to use registration and turnout data from the 2004 election, none of the states currently subject to Section 5 would have remained covered because the registration and turnout of black voters is on par with white voters and exceeds that of white voters in some of the covered states.”
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, nine out of 50 states were essentially being held hostage for the sins of a previous generation. While disenfranchisement and voter suppression has undoubtedly been a vitriolic stain on our nation’s past, we cannot continue to punish states that have made tremendous strides toward racial reconciliation and voter parity. We must never forget to acknowledge the centuries of slavery and voter suppression felt by millions of minority groups, but perhaps it is time to move forward and remove the color-tinted lenses that cloud our vision.
This also begs the question, “Should states with blemished racial histories still be required to pay retribution for past injustices, or have we entered a new era where individuals, regardless of their skin color, have equal opportunity to exercise their right to vote?”
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, it was extremely rare for the U.S. Justice Department to issue an objection to state-adopted voting laws. Between 1998 and 2002, the Department only issued five objections out of roughly 10,000 preclearance submissions. This is a clear indication that states have made a good faith effort toward drawing equitable voting districts and working to prevent the disenfranchisement of certain voting groups.
Over the past several decades, there has also been a dramatic increase in voter turnout and registration among minority voters nationwide. Most recently, the U.S. Census released data that revealed African American turnout surpassed White turnout by 66.2 to 64.1 percent of the vote during the 2012 Presidential Election. Could these statistics indicate a shift in voter participation and attitudes?
I believe we’ve also made great strides at the local level. In Haralson County, where the population is nearly 92 percent white, the current County Commission Chairman is African American. This indicates to me that Haralson County voters are not voting based on the color of one’s skin, but the merit and aptitude of the individuals on the ballot.
I would contend that although discriminatory actions still exist in the American electoral system, things are changing in America – particularly in the south. States such as Georgia and Mississippi, for example, should no longer be relegated to intrusive federal intervention requirements. These states have shown remarkable progress with regard to minority voting rates and should be allowed jurisdiction over their own voting laws. The past will always influence the present, but how can we move on to where individual states are not discriminated against because of previous actions?
Many individuals who were dissatisfied by the recent Supreme Court decision have expressed to news media and political commentators that the ruling places certain minority groups at a disadvantage. Why should this be the primary focus when everyone should be placed on an equal playing field? We always talk about equal rights, but true equality won’t happen until we stop singling out certain racial groups.
In the 21st Century, elections should not be about race but who is best for the job. At the end of the day, we all are guaranteed equal rights under the United States Constitution. Isn’t it time we look beyond the color of our skin and realize that we’re all Americans? The solution to healing racial tensions in America is not a simple “black or white” issue. Reconciliation extends well beyond the scope of voting rights and will require individuals from all races and ethnicities to work together towards tearing down the racial divide, and most importantly, forgive the injustices of the past.