The Most Basic of American Rights

Cassandra Walker PyeCassandra Walker Pye is a senior vice president in APCO’s Sacramento office and is a former deputy chief of staff to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

This month we celebrate Black History Month* in the U.S. I drafted a post, at about the same time last year, to share with my APCO colleagues, globally, the history behind the celebration and to offer commentary regarding the status of women in leadership roles in industry and politics. Last year’s theme focused on the many achievements of African American Women.

This year’s theme is “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.” The year 2013 marks two important anniversaries in the history of African Americans and the United States. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation set the United States on the path of ending slavery. One hundred years later, in August 1963, the historic March on Washington, D.C. set forth a rallying cry that the acceptance of racial segregation in America was under attack. Even my colleagues living outside the U.S. are likely to be familiar with the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as one of the crystalizing moments of the march and the movement. What followed, just a year later, was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Congress, which prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of U.S. public schools and other facilities (theatres, restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, etc.) and made employment discrimination illegal. It was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction (the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War). Then, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, outlawing discriminatory voting practices that essentially disenfranchised blacks. From 1890 to 1908, many southern states drafted constitutions that required literacy tests, grandfather clauses (which permitted otherwise disqualified voters whose grandfathers voted to vote, thereby allowing some whites to vote even if they failed the literacy test), and poll taxes, among other barriers, for their citizens who wished to vote. The Act was amended several times, as those same southern states attempted to circumvent the new federal law more than once. As the U.S. Supreme Court put it in its 1966 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Act:

Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims.

Fast-forward to the new millennium. President George W. Bush, in July of 2006, signed into law an extension of the Voting Rights Act – renewing its provisions for another 25 years. Several groups of Republican Members of Congress attempted to amend, delay and even defeat the Act’s renewal for a variety of reasons. Most notably, Georgia congressman Lynn Westmorland led a group that challenged the need to specifically target southern states in the measure, given how much time had passed since 1965 and the steps those states have taken to provide for fair elections. Another group sought to delete provisions in the Act requiring that translators or multilingual ballots be provided for U.S. citizens who do not speak English, calling them a “costly, unfunded mandate.” In the end, the bill passed the U.S. Senate on a 98-0 vote, and in the U.S. House of Representatives it received support from both Democrats and Republicans, including the Republican leadership. The Act requires municipalities receiving requests for ballots in other languages to comply with these requests.

This week, President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, announced a “nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” He named two veteran campaign attorneys to lead the effort, one from his presidential campaign and the other from that of Governor Mitt Romney. The President cited one instance of a 102-year-old Florida woman who had to wait in line “for hours” to cast her vote in the 2012 election. Florida, one of several swing states in the November election, was, by all accounts, the worst state for waiting times, and it’s believed that upwards of 200,000 voters gave up and didn’t cast a vote at all. This was not the case in most states, and the author of a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated that, “Only about 13 percent of voters said that they waited more than 30 minutes in order to vote.” The same MIT study also determined, however, that blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote, on average, than whites. Florida had the nation’s longest lines, at 45 minutes, followed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Charles Stewart III, the political science professor who conducted the analysis.

According to the New York Times, Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate have introduced bills that would require states to provide online voter registration and allow at least 15 days of early voting, among other things. Fourteen states are considering legislation that would expand early voting, including those three infamous swing states: Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And, last November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the provision in the Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to obtain federal approval before making any modifications in their elections practices. The justices said they will examine whether the formula under which states are measured is outdated, because it relies on data that is now 40 years old. The provision currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire. This application has to do not only with past discrimination against African Americans, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives and Hispanics. The “preclearance” provision was contained in the original version of the Voting Rights Act and the version extended by President Bush in 2006 – one which received overwhelming Republican support.

Those who know me well, know that I love Election Day – outside of Christmas and birthdays, it’s my favorite day of the year. I shall refuse to vote-by-mail unless and until it’s mandated in California, because I cherish the act of voting; there are so many people who gave their lives in order for me to do it – so I give it the honor it’s due. Three of my four sons are now registered (one son registered online for the 2012 Election), and I’m proud to have passed on the tradition of engaging in the most basic of American rights. I would hate to see the conversation about the right to vote devolve into anything resembling a partisan one, in Congress, and I hope the Supreme Court upholds provisions that reflect the spirit of the Act as it was intended. As President Johnson said the day he signed it into law:  This is ‘‘…a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.’’

Happy Black History Month.

*February is Black History Month in the US. Its origin can be traced back to scholar Carter G. Woodson, who, on February 7, 1926, led the first celebration of “Negro History Week” to help rectify the omission of African-Americans from history books. Today, the observance of Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of African-Americans and to recommit to making the teaching of history more honest and inclusive.

Posted on February 15, 2013 By Cassandra Pye
Categories  Community Engagement and tagged , , , , , ,
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