From “Retracing the Struggle: The Legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” a 40th-anniversary symposium organized by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
Published in Boston College Magazine, Winter, 2006
THE PULL BACK
Patricia J. Williams
I want to talk about the climate in which Section 5, a temporary provision of the Voting Rights Act due to expire in 2007, is now being discussed. Section 5 is known as the preclearance provision. When the Voting Rights Bill became law in 1965, it provided for federal oversight of election procedures in certain states and voting districts, primarily in the South. In those targeted areas, no adjustments to the voting process may be enacted without prior federal review. I do not deny that we have made progress. And yet I think we are at a precarious moment. I worry that we could go back in time.
On the one hand, we are being called to notions of colorblindness in which race supposedly does not matter. On the other, a great outrage of disparity persists. These times are as divided as any we have seen—divided not simply by red state and blue state, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, but by values having to do with the roles of men and women, race, and immigration.
Does this affect voting? It certainly is part of the backdrop that affects voting. In the last election, we saw not just felon disenfranchisement but the disenfranchisement of individuals whose names purportedly resembled those of felons. The degree to which this action fell disparately upon communities of color, liberal communities, and Jewish and immigrant neighborhoods in Florida is confirmed by data.
Just recently federal oversight struck down a Georgia provision requiring a photo ID to vote. The provision sounded neutral enough, but part of oversight is deciphering the degree to which a new requirement may stand for something else. In Georgia, this requirement reduced the possible avenues of identification for purposes of voting from 16 to six. There are no Department of Motor Vehicles offices in the city of Atlanta. They’re all in the suburbs.
In various public housing buildings in the North, the elevators go out on Election Day. In New York City, 50 percent of African-American men from 18 to 65 are unemployed. If that doesn’t contribute to lower voter turnout, I don’t know what does. I am a proponent not simply of renewing Section 5 but of expanding it.