In a democracy, voting is the most cherished right. And yet, in America — the world’s most exemplary democracy — there is no explicit constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. Instead, the right to vote is selectively addressed in constitutional provisions and in federal legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most important legislative initiatives in American history, is one of them. The VRA was signed into law 50 years ago Thursday.
In near-absolute terms, the First Amendment bans any law “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion],” “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Second Amendment boldly states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
If the Founders had been as affirmatively declaratory about voting as they were about talking, worshiping, publishing, assembling, petitioning and arming, perhaps they would also have addressed voting in a single inclusive amendment, instead of four issue-specific ones: XV (race discrimination), XIX (gender discrimination), XXIV (poll taxes), and XXVI (voting age).
But they may have been purposefully cautious. As President Johnson said in 1965, “the most basic right of all [is] the right to choose your own leaders.” Voting determines who will set the policies, who will make the rules, who is important, and who is not. Voting determines who is in charge.
Granting rights associated with voting in piecemeal, rather than comprehensive, terms has protected the “original power” that the Founders reserved for themselves and their generational progeny. It has also left the door open to condition and limit voting in ways designed to benefit the power brokers. The vicissitudes of time and social pressure have compelled extensions of voting rights to black men, women, the poor, and citizens 18 and older, but the escape hatch has harvested machinations designed to compromise those rights.
Yes, the Voting Rights Act brought dramatic changes to America’s political landscape, but it was, nevertheless, another piecemeal effort to shield the right to vote from racial prejudice. For that reason, it engendered a backlash against black voter success, including serial lawsuits, until revisionists were finally successful in persuading the Supreme Court to eviscerate the VRA in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder.
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SOURCE: USA Today – Vanzetta Penn McPherson is a retired U.S. magistrate judge for the Middle District of Alabama. Send email to [email protected]