Voting Rights –Then and Now

Through some twist of fate, March has been an important month in America’s gradual and still developing representative democracy. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and certified on March 30, 1870; that amendment declared that:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and that “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The very next day, March 31, 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson, an African American resident of Perth Amboy, N.J., became the first person to vote under its provisions. We know, of course, that the advent of Jim Crow laws and practices in the post-Reconstruction years effectively negated the 15th Amendment throughout the Deep South, an outrage that lasted for the next century. And while the 19th Amendment, which took effect in the summer of 1920, extended the franchise to women in America, black women in the South were excluded via law and practice.

The drive for civil rights — including voting rights — accelerated (mostly but not exclusively in the South) in the 1950s and 1960s, and reached a fever pitch in early 1965, as African Americans and enlightened citizens of other races argued, demonstrated, and marched to ensure that both the 15th and 19th Amendments were honored in all 50 states, including those of the old Confederacy.

On Feb. 18, 1965, voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper in Marion, Ala., while defending his family. In response to his death eight days later, the movement’s leaders decided to march from Selma to Montgomery.

March 7, 1965, is now regarded as a defining moment in that drive, for it was on that day –forever known as “Bloody Sunday” — that the moral force of civil rights was confronted by the full fury of official and unofficial white supremacy. The power of the movement and the ugliness its opponents were captured by television cameras. Local police, county sheriff’s deputies and state troopers, under the direction of Gov. George Wallace and pro-segregationist local officials, blocked the marchers at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, using brute force to disrupt and dismantle the protest. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman John Lewis, then only 25, suffered a fractured skull at the hands of one club-wielding officer.

In the shadows that dark day — literally and figuratively — members of the Ku Klux Klan cheered the authorities and their uniformed henchmen, waiting to apply their own murderous penalties. Unitarian minister James Reeb was fatally beaten by a racist mob outside an integrated Selma diner two days later. On March 25, Klansmen shot into a car with two civil rights workers,  Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife who’d come from Detroit to aid the cause, and Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old high school senior. Moton was uninjured, but Liuzzo was hit in the head and killed.

However, the power of news accounts of the violence and bloodshed proved to be infinitely greater than the clubs or the guns. Never was the effect of that power more evident than when, on March 15, 1965, President Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress, and declared to the American people:

“In our system the first and most vital of all our rights is the right to vote. Jefferson described it as ‘the ark of our safety.’ It is from the exercise of this right that all our other rights flow.” 

Congress, after vigorous and at times prolonged debate because of die-hard segregationists’ filibuster, approved the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965.

Five years later, provisions of the Voting Rights Act were expanded to include 18-to-21-year- olds (prior to that, the age of enfranchisement was 21 in 46 of the 50 states). But that provision hit a snag in December of 1970 when the Supreme Court determined that Congress had overstepped its authority in telling states what the age of eligibility should be in their elections. The high court ruled that it was okay in federal elections (president, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives), but not at the state and local levels.

The reaction of election officials in the states was swift and effective, as they were looking down the pike at an election in 1972 that would require two separate systems — one for 18-to-21-year-olds in federal races, and one for all others in state and local contests. The result would be chaos and massive additional expense. The only remedies available were a repeal of the problematic section of the Voting Rights Act (an option never seriously considered), or a constitutional amendment establishing 18 as the threshold year for voting in all elections.

Congress moved with uncharacteristic speed and near unanimity, as the Senate approved the 26th Amendment by a vote of 94-0 on March 10, 1971, and the House followed suit – 401-19 on March 23. The measure was sent immediately to the states, five of which ratified it the very same day. The necessary three-fourths of the states needed for ratification was achieved on July 1, 1971, and it was certified and went into effect on July 5 of that year, leading then-President Richard Nixon to observe:

 “I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new voters, America’s young generation, will provide what America needs as we approach our 200th birthday, not just strength and not just wealth but the ‘Spirit of ’76,’ a spirit of moral courage, a spirit of high idealism in which we believe in the American dream, but in which we realize that the American dream can never be fulfilled until every American has an equal chance to fulfill it in his own life.” 

Today, we know that the struggle for the right to vote on the part of minorities and young people is not complete, and even worse, serious attempts are being made to reverse advances previously made. And it is the party of Nixon — and now of Donald Trump — that is pushing those restrictions. At the urging of the American Legislative Exchange Council, among other conservative groups, legislatures across the country are considering measures (250 or so at last count) that would have the effect of rolling back the hard-won franchise.

As troubling as this assault on democracy might be, it should come as no surprise. More than four decades ago, prominent right-wing political activist Paul Weyrich was completely forthright about his movement’s philosophy. Speaking to a conclave of conservative evangelical Protestants gathered in Texas to support the 1980 presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan, Weyrich declared to a cheering audience:

“So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people; they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” (Emphasis added.)

Whereas Weyrich was honest about his views and motivations, today’s anti-voting rights advocates are much less so. They are, however, a lot more clever, and therefore more dangerous, as they mask their efforts to disenfranchise millions of their fellow citizens with feigned concern for election integrity and insincere attempts to root out virtually nonexistent voter fraud.

At the dawn of the 21st century’s third decade, political attention is understandably focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social impacts. We are hyper-concerned, as well, by the insurrection of Jan. 6 and what it might mean for the future of our democratic republic. Just down the immediate agenda are mega issues such as infrastructure investments and immigration reform.

Yet, my hunch is that one of the biggest stories of the era might turn out to be, as it was in the 1960s, voting rights, and assuring open access to the ballot for all Americans.

Les Francis served as Rep. Norman Mineta’s first congressional chief of staff before moving to Jimmy Carter’s White House as deputy assistant to the president and eventually deputy White House chief of staff. He remained active in national politics and public affairs from offices in Washington, D.C., for four decades before returning to his native California in 2016.

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