Voting Rights Act is Needed in New York
By Robert Adams
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1981, pp. 38-39
I speak as the elected Attorney General of the State of New York—a state which has three of its largest counties covered by the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act. I believe that extension of those provisions is essential.
The Voting Rights Act’s prohibition against discrimination in voting applies nationwide. The special provisions of the Act apply only to states and political subdivisions that meet certain specifications. Kings, New York and Bronx counties in New York state are subject to the Act’s special provisions, including Section 5, which requires preclearance of any changes in voting, and Section 203, which requires bilingual elections. New York’s experience in complying with these requirements convinces me that neither requirement is overly burdensome and that both effectively serve to protect the rights of minority citizens.
The counties of Kings, New York and Bronx first came within the purview of the Act in March, 1971. It was then that the United States Attorney General determined that the literacy requirement imposed by New York law was a “test or device” within the meaning of the Voting Rights Act.
Since becoming subject to the Act’s preclearance requirement, New York has had approximately 500 changes in voting practices reviewed by the Justice Department. The Department raised objections three times: twice in 1974 and once in 1975.
In September, 1974, the Department objected that certain polling places had been located in New York County in apartment complexes with mostly white tenants, although polling places had not been similarly located in complexes with mostly minority tenants. As a result of the objection, steps were taken to make polling places equally accessible to white and minority voters. In September, 1975, the Justice Department objected to the consolidation of two Democratic leadership districts in Manhattan. The proposed consolidation would have dismembered a predominantly minority district, with the possibility that the votes of minority voters would be diluted. As a result of the objection, the consolidation plan was abandoned. In each case, the objection was interposed in a timely manner, causing the minimum necessary disruption to the electoral process. And, in each case, the matter was resolved without litigation.
The third objection, and the one which resulted in a United States Supreme Court’s decision, involved the 1974 redistricting of State Assembly, State Senate, and Congressional districts in Kings and New York counties. Most of the redistricting was unobjectionable. However, the Justice Department was concerned that the creation of certain districts in those two counties would have the effect of abridging the right to vote on account of race.
The state chose to redraw the districts to prevent vote dilution. The reapportionment amendments were submitted to the Justice Department on May 31, 1974 and were approved one month later. However, white voters in Kings County sued, alleging that the plan violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the plan, ruling that the Constitution does not prohibit racial considerations when they are used to minimize the consequences of racial discrimination. New York, in redrawing the districts, had appropriately sought to alleviate the consequences of racial inequities and to achieve a fair allocation of political power among white and minority voters in Kings County. Under the Voting Rights Act, the effectiveness of minority voting power could not be diluted by dividing minority communities among predominantly white districts.
In the 1970s and 80s, the issues of voting discrimination have shifted from vote denial to vote dilution. With this shift, the preclearance requirement of Section 5 has become crucial. The overwhelming majority of objections interposed under Section 5 in the last ten years have been to voting changes that would dilute newly-acquired minority voting strength. Thus, to allow Section 5 to expire just as the post-1980 census redistricting is taking place would be particularly inappropriate.
The 1980 and 1990 post-census redistricting create the opportunity for diluting the voting strength of the growing numbers of minority voters. This seems to me argument enough for a ten-year extension of Section 5’s preclearance requirement. Additional argument, however, is found in Section 5’s deterrent effect. Some point to the fact that of the hundreds of submissions from New York, only three have resulted in objections. They cite this as evidence that Section 5 has become an unnecessary burden. I believe rather that these figures are evidence of the Act’s effectiveness as a deterrent. A former member of the New York Senate’s Election Committee has described to us how amendments to the Election Law, which might have had a discriminatory effect if passed, were often defeated or not even offered because of the barrier erected by the Voting Rights Act and the need for preclearance by the Justice Department.
The burden of meeting the preclearance requirement is one we can well afford. It is far less costly and far more expeditious to process five hundred voting changes through the Justice
Department than to litigate through the courts the manifold challenges that would ensue absent preclearance. And, more importantly, Section 5 is a crucial safeguard of the gains the nation has made in transforming the promises of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments into reality.
The language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act are equally important in guaranteeing the right to an effective vote. New York State has a Hispanic population of at least 1.6 million people, 1.4 million of whom live in New York City.
New York’s experience with bilingual elections demonstrates that although local officials may indeed be committed to a fair electoral process, it may take federal legislation or a court order to ensure that the commitment becomes action. The 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, requiring bilingual elections in areas with significant numbers of language minorities, do precisely that that. The Act’s bilingual election provision, like those of Section 5, apply only to the counties of the Bronx, Kings and New York, where they serve to reinforce federal court mandate.
The New York experience demonstrates the importance of the bilingual provisions and the fact that they are not burdensome or costly to implement. In New York City, all printed election materials are bilingual. To the extent possible, all forms are printed in both Spanish and English on the same form—either front and back, top and bottom, or left and right side. This policy extends even to the “No Smoking” signs. The envelope containing the “Notice of Cancellation of Registration” has a return address in English and Spanish, and a warning that the enclosed material is “very important … concerning voting status” in both English and Spanish. And, needless to say, the enclosed notice is entirely bilingual.
The financial burden to the state of bilingual elections is minimal; beyond start-up costs, the sums are truly insignificant. For example, all translation of state-wide registration and voting materials is handled by the New York State Board of Elections. The translations are done by the chairman of the Political Science Department of the state university at Albany, and cost, on average, just over $1,000 per year for the entire state. In Westchester County, with a Hispanic population of over 45,000 people, the costs of providing bilingual materials is approximately $3,000 per year, or less than .2 percent of the County Board of Elections’ budget.
The return on these insignificant expenditures is enormous. It is estimated that since New York first provided bilingual elections, Hispanic registration has increased by 20 percent. Since 1965, the number of New York Hispanic representatives in the state and federal legislatures has more than doubled. With minimal costs or burden, New York has done much to integrate the Hispanic community in New York into the electoral process.
To those who contend that the bilingual provisions of the Act are no longer necessary, I point to the fact that significant numbers of people still emigrate to the United States from Puerto Rico alone. All of them, and many other Hispanic citizens who are not fluent in English are citizens and entitled to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of voter equality demands continuation of the Congress’ commitment to the Act’s bilingual provisions.
The special provisions of the Voting Rights Act apply to all or part of 22 states. Three New York counties, with more than 4.8 million people, are covered by the Act’s special provisions. More people are protected in these three counties than are protected in the States of Alabama (3.9 million), Mississippi (2.5 million) or South Carolina (3.1 million).
I am troubled by the argument that the Act singles out the Southern states. Even the few statistics I have cited indicate otherwise. Furthermore, the Act’s special provisions are triggered only by practices that are demonstrated to have a discriminatory impact, regardless of the state where they occur.
I am equally troubled that one response to this perception of regional discrimination is that preclearance should be implemented nationwide, without a trigger mechanism. Unless there is a need in all jurisdictions, it seems simply wasteful and arbitrary to extend preclearance in this fashion. One can only suspect that the effort to extend preclearance nationwide is in reality an attempt to undermine the Act’s effectiveness.
We can ill afford to send to the American people a signal that voter equality is no longer a top national priority. Failure to extend the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act would do just that.
Robert Adams testified before Congress on June 10, 1981.