On Aug. 6, the historic Voting Rights Act turns 50. It remains relevant, necessary — and under assault. Just Wednesday, a federal court of appeals slapped down Texas’ stringent voter-ID law, saying that the Republican-backed measure passed in 2011 violates the Act.
The Voting Rights Act was born of time when white America — particularly the South — threw hurdle after hurdle in African Americans’ path to the ballot box, denying them a voice fully guaranteed — OK, guaranteed to African-American men — by the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870. Almost a century later, however, blacks still could not fully exercise the voting rights it granted.
Unfortunately, despite the progress that has been realized 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was enacted, many hurdles remain.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as outdated Section 5 of the Act, which required places with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before changing their election laws. Congress should act on at least two bills that seek to update the formula that determines which localities still need such oversight.
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Before the controversial Act was passed, violence, onerous poll taxes and ridiculous literacy tests greeted African Americans when they showed up to register. How ridiculous? Here’s a test that Polk County elections supervisor Lori Edwards unearthed from Louisiana, featured in a piece in the Tampa Tribune:
▪ Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line, but capitalize the fifth word that you write.
▪ Spell backwards, forward.
▪ Place a cross over the 10th letter in this line, a line under the first space in this sentence and circle around the last “the” in the second line of this sentence.
That’s how ridiculous.
In Florida, Ms. Edwards says, residents were charged $2 to register to vote. That would be about $50 today. Though the tax applied to everyone, there was an exemption for white men who had previously voted or had a relative who had voted. This left mostly African Americans to pony up the money.
Florida continues to throw challenges in the way of easy access to the polls, and in some ways is an outlier among more progressive states. For instance, Florida is one of only three states that does not automatically restore ex-felons’ voting rights. The policy is rooted in the heinous Jim Crow practices of the past that have no place in 21st-century America. But under Gov. Scott and the Cabinet, it persists — and these elected officials have made it tougher for even those convicted of non-violent crimes to have their rights restored.
In the name of combating unproven rampant fraud at the polls, state officials, including those during Jeb Bush’s administration, sought to stage massive, scatter-shot purges of the voter rolls, snaring the legitimate as well as the ineligible.
The state continues to monkey around with hours and locations of early-voting sites. And thanks to state law, third-party, nonpartisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have a more difficult time registering Floridians.
In one progressive, bipartisan move, state legislators approved online voting registration — over the vigorous objections of Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who manages the state’s elections.
Mr. Detzner should not drag his feet in implementing this smart measure. Voting rights still matter, and he has an obligation to be Floridians’ ally.