Constitution Daily

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Will the next 50 years fulfill the promise of the last 50 years?

August 6, 2015 by J. Christian Adams


(credit: Vox Efx)
(credit: Vox Efx)

This commentary is part of a blog symposium honoring the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Other contributions come from Roger Clegg, Rick HasenKermit Roosevelt and Brianne Gorod.


It is true to the point of cliché that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in the nation’s history. You’ll hear a lot of that this week, and you should.


The reason the Voting Rights Act is the most successful piece of civil rights legislation is because it implemented the dreams of the post-Civil War radical Republicans. They wanted all people to be treated equally without regard to race. They wanted the law to act as a great leveler that prevented the law from giving favors or building barriers based on skin color.


The authors of the 15th Amendment saw firsthand the bloody price paid for that principle in places like Antietam, Gettysburg and Chickamauga. Yet it took almost a century to implement their dream fully.


But many pushing the clichés about the Voting Rights Act this week ignore signs of trouble.


Should the law be enforced in a race-neutral manner? America is changing, and what was once a majority in some areas no longer is. Will the Voting Rights Act be enforced to protect all Americans, or just those politically favored by the party in power?


The record the last decade isn’t good.


Many of the civil rights groups trumpeting about the Voting Rights Act this week were hostile to its enforcement in Noxubee County, Mississippi. There, a black political machine systematically discriminated against a white minority. The machine tossed out the ballots of white voters and engaged in wholesale voter fraud to protect the black political majority.


The response from the civil rights groups to the Voting Rights Act case I helped pursue in Noxubee County at the Justice Department? Shameful. At best they ignored the case, and at worst they criticized it. They said the Voting Rights Act was designed only to help certain favored races. In a changing nation, that view is dangerous.


The federal courts did what these groups were too afraid to do and used the Voting Rights Act to rule against the black political machine.


Neither can the biggest advocates of the law this week be found on the island of Guam. That territory has a law that limits the franchise in a special election to only native Chamorros. Officials at the Obama Justice Department could have done something about this racially discriminatory rule, but that’s not part of their agenda. Instead, my client, retired Major Dave Davis has gone to federal court under the Voting Rights Act without the help of civil rights groups or the DOJ.


If advocates want the Voting Rights Act to remain popular among all Americans, they better start supporting using the Voting Rights Act to protect all Americans, not just some.


Another brewing danger is the use of the Voting Rights Act for partisan purposes. Some don’t seem to care. One Stanford law professor even wrote an article called “Democrats at DOJ: Why Partisan Use of the Voting Rights Act Might Not Be So Bad After All.”


When racial polarization means that a particular minority group votes overwhelmingly as a block for one political party, the Voting Rights Act can become a partisan weapon. Attacks against state election integrity laws using the Voting Rights Act in places like North Carolina appear more to be an effort to aid Democrats than defend equality of opportunity.


The Voting Rights Act is successful because it requires electoral systems to disregard race. It requires a majority to treat a minority like they would want to be treated. It has a profound moral gravity behind it. But efforts to move the law away from this moral foundation will eventually endanger its broad support. It was a law designed to end the grant of electoral power based on race.


When the law is used to protect some races, and not all races, the moral force behind the law is weakened. When the law is used to protect partisan interests, the moral force behind the law is corrupted. Let’s hope the founding principles behind the 15th Amendment illuminate the next 50 years of Voting Rights Act enforcement.


J. Christian Adams is the President and General Counsel of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. He served from 2005 to 2010 in the Voting Section at the United States Department of Justice. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department.


Editor’s note: Commentaries appearing on Constitution Daily reflect the opinions of their authors, and not those of the National Constitution Center.


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