WASHINGTON - The 1960s were turbulent times: war in Southeast Asia, battles
on the streets of major Southern cities, and equality and
disenfranchisement on the lips of every minority person in the country who
wanted to be treated fairly and allowed to vote.
In 1965, what is now touted as the greatest civil rights legislation ever
passed, the Voter Rights Act, was signed into law by Pres. Lyndon Johnson.
It gave people classified as minority groups a chance to vote without the
restrictions of poll taxes, literacy tests or other rules that prevented
many people from voting.
The act was directed mostly at Southern states to bring about voter
equality for blacks, but it also affected other minorities -- American
Indians included. American Indians may have been made citizens of their own
country in 1924, but Western states continued to prevent Natives from
voting until 1965.
Then language barriers were used to discriminate in many Southwestern
states; and in 1975, a VRA amendment was passed that broke down language
discrimination by requiring states to provide interpreters and print voting
material and ballots in the languages frequently spoken in those regions.
American Indians also benefit from Section 5 of the VRA. Section 5 requires
a state or county to ask for pre-clearance on any change in the laws that
would affect the voters. Arizona, parts of New Mexico and two counties in
South Dakota with heavy American Indian populations are affected by Section
The amendments and other provisions expire in 2007 and must be renewed in
order for them to continue.
That may pose a problem. There is not a uniform acceptance of the
provisional rules, and congressional debates are sure to take place.
A conservative member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Abigail
Thernstrom, the commission's vice president, called the provisions that are
set to expire unconstitutional because they pertain to certain parts of the
country and not the entire nation.
Those who favor an extension of the provisions argue that there are still
restrictions placed on minority voters. Registration requirements,
redistricting plans that dilute minority voting districts and packing of
districts continues to take place. Annexations of residential developments
into cities also can effectively dilute a minority voting block.
American Indians have successfully litigated discriminatory acts in Arizona
and, most recently, in South Dakota, where two counties are placed under
Section 5 rules. State lawmakers in both states are speaking out in favor
of the expiration of Section 5 and the other amendments.
The National Congress of American Indians stands in the forefront of the
fight to renew the provisional sections. NCAI joined with the Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund at the launching of a campaign to
strengthen and extend the VRA.
"The Voting Rights Act has been critical to the political and civic
engagements and empowerment of the Native American community.
"American Indians have long struggled to participate fully in the electoral
process and have suffered years of disenfranchisement," said Jacqueline
Johnson, executive director of the NCAI.
Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the VRA, U.S. Attorney General
Alberto Gonzales spoke at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Texas. He
affirmed the Bush administration's commitment to reauthorizing the VRA.
"The Voting Rights Act has been enormously successful, but our work is
never complete. For this reason, this administration looks forward to
working with Congress on the reauthorization of this important
legislation," Gonzales said.
He spoke of the protection from fraud at the voting booth, the requirement
to provide materials for people with English as a second language and of
maintaining federal poll watchers. He did not mention Section 5 directly,
which may be the most controversial amendment in the act.
Gonzales said the first responsibility of the attorney general's office was
to ensure that all qualified voters have access to the ballot box; and
secondly, to preserve the integrity of the overall election process. No
mention was made of electing preferred candidates by minority block voters
or diluting voting districts through redistricting. His office must approve
any changes in the voting rules by nine states and two separate counties.
Proponents of extending the provisions of the act and the act itself point
to the 2000 general election in Florida, where thousands of blacks were
allegedly purged from the voting lists.
Proponents want to go further and strengthen the act. They argue that there
were not enough voting machines in some areas of Ohio, which created long
lines of voters who had to wait for hours or give up.
Voting rights groups, the NCAI and the NAACP all want the law strengthened
in the area of language provisions, as well as observers at certain voting
locations that are known to have problems. In all, 22 counties in Arizona
must offer voting materials in several American Indian languages or
Spanish; nine counties in Mississippi must offer materials in Choctaw; and
New York must offer ballots and voting materials in Spanish, Chinese and
Korean in 11 counties.
The congressional debate is inevitable.
"There is all kinds of talk in Congress. Some are open to changing the
amendments; and pro-voting rights forces [would] like to see the act
restored to the 1982 version, the last time it was amended," said Bryan
Sells, voting rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
With the push to support extension of the act, American Indian leaders will
have to convince their fellow tribal members to rise up in support of the
extension. As the movement to register and "get out the vote" in Indian
country increases to ensure more say in local and state governments, many
people still stay home.
Energizing the American Indian voter is top priority at the NCAI and many
other local groups around the country. They have effectively changed the
landscape of the electorate in some states, and an extension and
strengthening of the VRA and its amendments would ensure that process
continues, American Indian leaders argue.
The election of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., by some 538 votes; Rep. Grace
Napolitano, D-Calif.; and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are used to point
out that the American Indian vote is vital and important and may not have
been possible without the 1965 VRA.
"This law covers many pages. But the heart of the act is plain. Wherever,
by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using
regulations, or laws, or tests to deny the right to vote, then they will be
struck down. If it is clear that state officials still intend to
discriminate, then federal examiners will be sent in to register all
eligible voters. When the prospect of discrimination is gone, the examiners
will be immediately withdrawn.
"And, under this act, if any county anywhere in this nation does not want
federal intervention it need only open its polling places to all of its
people," Johnson said in his remarks in the Capitol Rotunda at the signing
of the act.