Poll taxes. Literacy tests. The threat of physical harm.
For almost a century, an establishment of mostly white Southerners worked to erect barriers between black Americans and the ballot box. Those measures were aimed at denying them the constitutional right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which became law 50 years ago today, removed those hurdles for all Americans, regardless of their skin color or social standing.
But five decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed what may be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in U.S. history, some believe the state of voting rights is in peril.
The 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder altered a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Now, many Southern states with histories of racial discrimination no longer are required to seek federal approval before making changes to their voting laws.
Since then, at least 16 states, including Virginia, have put in place photo-identification laws that proponents say are intended to prevent voter fraud. Detractors argue that such laws suppress the black vote, pointing to evidence that minority voters are less likely to have photo IDs.
Some states have cut early voting, which minorities do at higher rates than other voters.
And about 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting because of felony convictions, and many states have procedures that make it difficult for felons to have their rights restored. Voting rights advocates say those restrictions disproportionately affect minorities.
Dr. William F. Reid, who in 1967 was elected as the first black member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 82 years, said it is sad to witness history repeating itself.
“Immediately after the removal of the restrictions by the Supreme Court, legislation was introduced to make it more difficult for people to vote,” Reid said. “We should have seen it coming.”
Democrats in Congress are seizing on the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary to challenge Republicans to take up a rewrite of the law.
“A foundation of our society is that each of us has a duty to protect Americans’ access to the democratic process. Unfortunately, we still see efforts to limit access to the ballot box,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va.
“Following the Shelby County v. Holder decision, it is important that we provide a legislative fix to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act.”
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision that determined which states and localities had to get federal permission to change their voting laws.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts called the pre-clearance requirement a “drastic departure from basic principles of federalism” that had since served its purpose.
“History did not end in 1965,” Roberts wrote. “Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers.”
In Washington last month, House Democrats renewed their push for the restoration of the pre-clearance provision.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 would create a new geographic coverage formula based on current conditions, establishing a “rolling” nationwide trigger that continuously moves so only states with a recent record of racial discrimination in voting would be covered.
The measure would allow federal courts to include states or jurisdictions where voting practices have been discriminatory. Under current law, states or jurisdictions may be included if an intentional violation can be shown. The new legislation is designed to offer more protection.
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., one of the sponsors of the companion bill in the Senate, said the measure would require any state that had multiple voting rights violations in the past 25 years to seek pre-clearance, Virginia included.
“Whether you are north, south, east or west, it doesn’t make a difference,” Kaine said in a recent interview at his Capitol Hill office.
“We’re not penalizing Southern states, and we are not letting Northern states off the hook. If you had a documented history of voting rights violations, then you are required to get pre-clearance for the next 10 years.”
But passage of the voting rights bill faces long odds. While the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Voting Rights Act in the immediate aftermath of Shelby County v. Holder, the Republican-run Congress has not allowed any voting rights bills to come up in committee in almost two years.
The Roanoke-area congressman who is chairman of the committee, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-6th, declined to comment for this story.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said any comprehensive attempt to restore the Voting Rights Act is “doomed” for the time being.
“I’m not saying it’s all about politics, but let’s face it — we’re talking about loads of votes here,” Sabato said, adding that the proposed legislation would increase the number of minorities on the registration rolls.
“Combining all minorities together, Democrats regularly receive about 80 percent of the minority vote. Republicans realize that, and they control both houses of Congress. So it’s fairly obvious what will happen to this legislation, at least as it is currently written,” he said.
For some time, House Democrats had invested their hopes in then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor as a possible ally in the fight to rewrite the Voting Rights Act after he hinted he might support such a measure.
In the aftermath of Shelby County v. Holder, Cantor said he was “hopeful that Congress will put politics aside and find a reasonable path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”
But Cantor’s unexpected primary defeat in June 2014 against Dave Brat diminished Democratic hopes for House GOP leadership support on this issue.
In Virginia, the Republican majority in the state legislature for years has opposed Democratic efforts to repeal the felon disenfranchisement provision through an amendment to the state Constitution.
Virginia is one of four states to ban its citizens permanently from casting a ballot if they have been convicted of a felony.
While there is a way out — felons can apply for rights restoration after completing their sentences — it remains a burdensome procedure with an outcome that is not guaranteed. Several top officials, including then-Gov. Bob McDonnell and then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, both Republicans, pushed hard for accelerating the process.
“Literally hundreds of thousands of individuals — a majority of whom are people of color — remain unable to vote because of the commonwealth’s lifetime felon disenfranchisement ban enacted in the Jim Crow era as part of an intentional effort to reduce the number of black voters,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
Virginia’s new photo-ID law requires voters to present at the polls such photo identification as a Virginia driver’s license; a U.S. passport or any other photo ID issued by the U.S. government, Virginia or one of its political subdivisions; a student ID issued by any institute of higher learning in Virginia; or any employee ID card.
Voters who do not have acceptable photo identification can apply for a free ID with their local registrars in a process similar to obtaining a driver’s license. To date, more than 4,000 of these have been issued statewide, elections officials say.
The legislation cleared the General Assembly and was signed into law several months ahead of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, but it did not require federal pre-clearance because it didn’t take effect until 2014.
In June, two Democratic voters and the Democratic Party of Virginia filed suit against the State Board of Elections and the Department of Elections, seeking to strike down the photo ID law.
Still, the decision in Shelby County v. Holder was “quite important” to the voter ID law, said Henry L. Chambers Jr., a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond.
“In the wake of Shelby, we are now moving a little farther into the direction of restricting the right to vote administratively,” Chambers said.
“It’s not that folks are restricting the right to vote on purpose; it’s just that, when you require more ID for folks, some people may not have it or may not have it on them on that day, and going home to get it may cause enough dislocation for them to decide not to vote.”
But Republicans argue that photo-ID laws bolster the integrity of the ballot box by reducing fraud, and that polls show them to have wide bipartisan support among Virginia voters.
“When we talk about protecting the vote, we also talk about not diluting the vote, and that’s one of the things that the voter ID does,” said state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, chief patron of the photo-ID bill.
“And if people are concerned or afraid that their vote isn’t going to count as much because it’s been diluted, then that undermines the confidence in our system.”
But voting rights, Obenshain added, should be a nonpartisan issue.
“If you get beyond the rhetoric and into reality, you’ll see that the record of Republicans like me has been to work hard to make sure that we do have free, open and fair elections, to make sure that votes count, that they are not watered down or diluted, and make sure that we have public confidence in the election system,” he said.
Kaine laments the partisan nature of the voting rights debate.
“We can’t even find one Republican to help sponsor in the House or Senate the reform bill,” he said.
Changing the trend in favor of voting rights would require a reversal of political power and a decrease in partisanship nationally, Sabato said.
“This is a subject that is almost off-limits for most Republicans, and they are holding a majority in both houses of Congress and in most state legislatures,” he said.
“Until we see President Obama go into political retirement, and until we see some changes in other elected offices across America, I don’t think we are going to see much progress on the voting rights front.”