‘I recall having to pay a poll tax’
By Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson
With its ruling on the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court has taken the country back to a time when racial minorities were not able to participate equitably in the voting process. The court’s decision is disgraceful to civil rights leaders and legislators who have fought to preserve equal voting rights in this country.
It reminds me of a time in our history when minorities were prevented from voting because they had to pay a “poll tax” before they could vote.
The tax represented a mean-spirited and vicious way of keeping hundreds of thousands of people from voting. The objection to eliminating the poll tax was that it would allow people of color to “flood the polls.”
I recall having to pay a poll tax to vote in Texas. The practice began in my state in 1902. It did not end until 1966. During those 64 years, hundreds of thousands of our citizens were denied the right to vote, an opportunity to participate in American democracy. The federal government prohibited the use of a poll tax in national elections in 1964 with the passage of the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The court’s current assault on the Voting Rights Act prevents the federal government from ensuring that states with a history of racial discrimination will not enact voting methods and procedures that will deny a very significant right and duty.
Prior to that time, nine states, mostly located in the southern United States, had to receive clearance or prior approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before they could institute changes in voting methods or engage in redistricting.
In its ruling, the court did not alter Section 5. Instead, it ruled that the formula, detailed in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, used to determine which states should be covered by Section 5, went beyond constitutional limits and used data that was outdated.
The effect of that ruling is to mute Section 5 and allow states to amend voting procedures and practices as they see fit without fear of federal intervention.
Those who advocated for radical changes in the Voting Rights Act said that increasing numbers of racial minorities participated in state and national elections. They even pointed to the election of President Barack Obama as a reason for the elimination of federal oversight and intervention.
The reality is that since 2010, eight southern states passed laws designed to make voting more cumbersome for racial minorities. Various civil rights organizations and entities such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have consistently opposed the elimination of federal involvement in local elections.
Recently, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge said that without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, minority voters would suffer.
Efforts to lessen the impact of the minority vote in Texas have been egregious. Last summer, a federal court in Washington stated that a redistricting map enacted by the Republican controlled legislature was “purposefully discriminatory.”
In the spring of 2012, the Texas NAACP and Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives went to federal court to stop the state from requiring a photo ID in state elections. A federal court agreed, finding that the law violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Now, the Texas Attorney General says he is going to put the photo ID requirement in place.
Bipartisan coalitions of members of both the House and Senate have historically supported the Voting Rights Act and its provisions.
In 2006, the act was renewed for 25 years. The vote in the House was 390 to 30, while the vote in the Senate was 98 to zero. President George W. Bush signed the measure.
Simply stated, the Voting Rights Act is the perpetuation of our democracy. We are a great country because all of our citizens have the right to exercise the right to vote without fear of intimidation.
Congress must now come together to do what we all know is the right thing to do. We must once again make the Voting Rights Act a principled piece of legislation that protects all of our citizens, regardless of race, class or religious preference. This is why we are Americans. This is fundamental to our freedom.
Congresswoman Johnson represents the 30th Congressional District of Texas.