Voting rights denied

Voting rights denied

By The Editors

Volume 14, No. 3, pp. 1-4

George Bush celebrated the July 4th weekend this year with the most flagrantly anti-democratic act of his presidency—the veto of the National Voter Registration Act. The bill, which passed both houses of Congress with wide but not veto-proof margins, would have increased voter rolls from a disappointing 60 percent to an estimated 90 percent of eligible voters. With this Presidential exercise in arrogance, supporters of the legislation are left for the time being with the arduous but essential campaign to improve voter registration laws state-by-state.

Bush’s veto should be seen for what it is—a partisan Republican strategy to limit the franchise and deny access to the voting booth. In a year of growing citizen rebelliousness against the privileges of public officeholders, our chief public official fears—as he well should—an expanded electorate, though the bill would not take effect until after the 1992 elections.

The President’s terse veto message inexplicably cites “no justification” for the bill, though seventy million Americans remain unregistered. He rehashes fraud and corruption arguments but, as always, with no substantiating evidence. In fact, the twenty-nine states that register voters at motor vehicle bureaus and the twenty-seven states that allow registration by mail, have found no cheating.

Bush further cites “unnecessary, burdensome, expensive and constitutionally questionable federal regulation,” but what more constitutionally protected activity for government could there be than insuring citizen

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participation? It is here that Bush reveals what is the real heart of Republican aversion to the bill—what is radical about this bill It makes voter registration an official function of the state.

With the slogans of democracy on its lips, the United States intervenes around the world. Yet the U.S. ranks last of twenty major industrialized nations in voter participation—the only one where the burden of participation is on the citizen.

The bill’s nickname, the “motor voter” bill, while handy, does a disservice, for this legislation would have gone much further than enlisting people with automobiles. Not only would the National Voter Registration Act have automatically registered drivers’ license applicants, it would have required employees in public assistance, unemployment compensation, and offices serving the disabled to register voters. It would have encouraged the creation of additional registration sites. It would have provided for registration by mail in federal elections. Registered voters would have stayed registered, ending wholesale purges so effectively used to control the outcome of Southern elections.

The results, extrapolating from states which already apply these methods, would have been dramatic (see graph on page 3).

The National Voter Registration Act would have lent even greater significance to the struggle for power by disfranchised voters than the sheer numbers of new registrants. The legislation would have re-created a state obligation to register voters, shifting the authority for voter registration from the fiefdoms of county registrars to a matter of state responsibility.

That obligation was abdicated as early as 1944, when the all-white primaries were ended as a result of Smith v. Allwright.

With the effects of Smith, states looked for new ways to prevent the franchise from being used by black voters. “Every voter registration officer is a law unto himself,” said political scientist V.0. Key, in his 1949 book, Southern Politics. To shield their mischief from scrutiny, states stopped keeping reliable records about voter registration, especially by race. Even now, some major Southern states, like Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, have no state record-keeping system for voters.

When the states stopped, the Southern Regional Council started, painstakingly documenting county by county, compiling and publishing the estimates of voter registration by race in the Southern states, in order to prove that, despite the claims of most Southern white politicians, blacks could not register and vote in the South.

Under the leadership of Wiley Branton, Vernon Jordan, and John Lewis, the Voter Education Project was

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established as a special project of the Southern Regional Council from 1962 until 1972 to show how registration could happen. Two million Southern voters were registered as a result of VEP’s work. Working together with local organizations, VEP proved that democracy might yet come home to the South.

But not without a price. In Mississippi, voter registration efforts by COFO (the Council of Federated Organizations), headed by Bob Moses, assisted by Dave Dennis, met with immediate violence. While the public accommodations bill, an issue of custom and comfort, even economics, provoked reaction, it did not match the violence that erupted over the right to vote—a question of power. As Mae Bertha Carter, of Sunflower County, Mississippi, puts it in this issue of Southern Changes, “there’s strength in voting. Voting is hiring and firing power.”

Faced with energetic black registration, white leadership took other measures. For instance, at-large voting schemes were implemented in South Carolina and other Southern states. Voting precincts were malaligned. These and other schemes diluted black voting strength, making it virtually impossible for local black voters to elect candi-

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dates of their choice.

New initiatives had to be taken to attack at-large plans and win fair redistricting for disfranchised voters. After Selma’s Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when John Lewis and other civil rights workers were beaten and tear-gassed, the U.S. Congress responded to the horrors of televised violence and, within weeks, passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act prevented any state or local jurisdiction with a history of low voter registration and resistance to black voting from making changes in election rules and procedures without the approval of the U.S. Justice Department. The Act—which largely affected Southern states—also provided for private litigation and for Justice officials to enforce fair rules for political participation.

During the last thirty-five years, the Voting Rights Movement has served as the means of enforcing the Voting Rights Act. And with apparent results. Fifty years ago, not one black elected official represented the South; now there are greater numbers at the state and local level than in any other section of the country.

As a result of fair redistricting, black representation in Congress from the South could triple after the November 1992 elections. There will be thirteen to fifteen new members of Congress representing the South from majority black districts—more than at any time in U.S. history. At the same time, Hispanic voters will send a record number of House members of Congress to Washington.

Yet, low levels of registration continue to plague the democratic process. While black voters in some parts of the South are catching up with whites in levels of registration, it is chiefly because all levels of registration and voting are low and falling. At a time when redistricting will allow members of the new Congress and state legislatures to represent the diverse populations of our nation, the South and the nation need to send new voters to the polls to continue the reawakening of our democracy. The government needs to help people register—not keep them from voting.

George Bush is the first president in the twentieth century to veto a voting rights bill. As John Lewis, now a member of Congress, states, “like a thief in the night, the President wants to steal our best hope for the expansion of American democracy.” —The Editors

Below, for example, the Atlanta Constitution and Journal covered the Bush veto. U.S. newspapers and electronic media largely ignored Bush’s veto of the National Voter Registration Act and the significance of the story. Because of the President’s partisan concerns, the United States is certain to remain the industrial nation with the lowest rate of voter participation in the world.

President Bush on Thursday vetoed legislation requiring states to register voters when they apply for driver’s licenses or government benefits, saying it would impose needless, costly and constitutionally questionable federal regulation. “It would also expose the election process to an unacceptable risk of fraud and corruption without any reason to believe that it would increase electoral participation to any significant degree,” Mr. Bush said in his veto message.