Renewing voters' rights
THE VOTING Rights Act turns 40 this year and enters an embattled middle age. It's time to renew the promise of the law's youth.
Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, civil rights protesters marched across the South. In his 1963 ''Letter From Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that there was no time for patience because ''we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights."
On March 7, 1965, there was a Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. But when the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a short distance from where they started, they were attacked by state and local law officials wearing gas masks, spraying tear gas, and waving billy clubs. On March 9 King led another march. Later in the month there was a third march. And this tide carried the country to Aug. 6, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
It was monumental legislation that gave a steely resiliency to the Fifteenth Amendment, which had been ratified in 1870 and said that the right 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."
Voting seemed destined for a level playing field. But then Election Day 2000 came, and the country saw that voting rights were still endangered, compromised by hanging chads and felon purges that banished people from the rolls even when they had every legal right to vote. In other states, aging voting machines faltered. People with little or no English got insufficient help. Instead of a 21st-century system, the country saw a tattered patchwork quilt. South Africans joked that perhaps they could send monitors to help the United States run its elections. Some problems persisted in 2004. Machines were modernized, but often with too little protection against rigging.
In 2007, parts of the Voting Rights Act will expire and require reauthorization by Congress. Without reauthorization, key protections would disappear.
Congress should reauthorize the requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must get federal approval before they can change voting procedures. Congress should also reauthorize provisions for having federal observers and for providing bilingual election materials -- an essential nod to fairness given the growing population of immigrants.
Although we don't agree with his call for a constitutional amendment, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois is right to propose minimum federal election standards that would be reviewed at least every four years.
Americans fight hard to live up to their ideals of freedom. A key weapon should be a new, stronger Voting Rights Act.