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With Congress poised to extend, for another quarter-century, certain “temporary” provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it’s worth pondering some of the political mischief taking place these days in the name of “voting rights.”
Take New York’s 11th Congressional District, a safe Democratic seat covering several neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The seat is currently occupied by Major Owens, a black Democrat who has held it since 1983 and is retiring this year. One of the four candidates to replace him is David Yassky, a white Democrat who represents some of the same Brooklyn neighborhoods as a city councilman.
Mr. Owens has one of Congress’s most liberal voting records, and there’s nothing in the background of Mr. Yassky, a protégé of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, that suggests he would vote much differently. Even so, Mr. Owens and the three other candidates, all of whom are black, are on a mission to force Mr. Yassky out of the race. In the case of Mr. Owens, this has partly to do with the fact that his son is among those running in the September 12 Democratic primary. But Mr. Owens, the other black candidates and local black officials have stressed that their overriding concern is the color of Mr. Yassky’s skin. And they’re using the Voting Right Act to justify old-fashioned race-baiting.
New York’s 11th District is a product of racial gerrymandering linked to passage of the Voting Rights Act. When Congress passed the law 40 years ago to address black disenfranchisement primarily in the Deep South, some provisions were made permanent and others temporary. Gone forever were poll taxes and grandfather clauses, but Section 5 provisions of the law dealing with “preclearance,” or federal oversight of local election practices, were meant to be short-term.
Study after study shows that preclearance is no longer necessary. Black voter registration and participation rates, along with the growth of minority officeholders — often elected with white “cross-over” votes — demonstrate that blacks are no longer disenfranchised. Yet Congress continues to reauthorize these Section 5 provisions because they allow both Republicans and Democrats to keep drawing racially gerrymandered districts in the name of protecting voting rights.
“A law passed to protect minority voters — to ensure free and fair access to the polls — has become much like every other affirmative action policy,” says Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on the unintended consequences of the Voting Rights Act. “It has become, literally, a racial set-aside. The law is being used to justify actual racial proportionality.”
But don’t expect any of this to matter as Congress ramrods through another extension of the provisions that feed these bad outcomes. A House vote is due any day, and the Senate is expected to follow sometime prior to the July 4 recess. Congress has never let balkanization of the electorate get in the way of protecting its own political hide, especially when it can claim to be siding with the “voting rights” angels.
(Posted on June 21, 2006)