States Rights is code for discrimination. A century and a half ago, some states asserted the right to leave the union. As any first year law student knows, partnerships are destroyed when partners withdraw. To avoid destroying the union, we fought the nation’s bloodiest conflict and admitted traitors back into the country on generous terms. After all, Southern dead paid in blood for their defense of the peculiar institution.
Fifty years ago, all Americans were free, but blacks were routinely denied the ballot and women had held the franchise for only a generation. Some states blocked access to the ballot with the same ferocity and on the same grounds that they stood in school house doors with ax handles – states rights. Denial of the ballot was premised on the right of states to control all election processes and procedures.
By eradicating widespread disenfranchisement in Dixie and in urban areas outside the Old South, the Voting Rights Act proved to be one of the most effective pieces of federal legislation ever enacted. It ranks with the 14th Amendment and the Commerce clause in changing the lives of Americans everywhere – for the better.
Like any new device, it took time for blacks and progressive whites to fully utilize the Voting Rights Act. Section V is a powerful tool and a near-anomaly in the law, requiring prior Department of Justice approval before states or other covered jurisdictions can make changes to voting processes and procedures. But its power derives from the circumstances surrounding its implementation. Some jurisdictions were so determined to deny minority groups the right to vote that they could not be trusted to manage their own elections. Eventually, the Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 ushered in a new era of black political participation with thousands of black elected officials suing to create single-member districts where minority voting strength could be felt and breaking down the barriers to voter registration.
Motor Voter was an important milestone in the march toward full enfranchisement. Gone were the last vestiges of voter intimidation and courthouse-only registration. Potential voters could register at the public library, in school, at public agency offices and in door-to-door campaigns mounted by activists. And they could document their citizenship and residency in dozens of ways: utility bills, passports, birth certificates, student i.d. cards were all acceptable forms of identification.
But now, frightened by the country’s demographic realities and emboldened by a rightwing federal judiciary leftover from the Reagan-Bush era, some radical conservatives are raising the terrible visages of voter suppression and states’ rights once again. The battlefields are familiar, yet different this time around. All-white enclaves that surround Atlanta are seceding from Fulton County to avoid black political power. Republican-controlled legislatures are packing black voters into segregated districts to create even more partisan influence, with an avowed aim of running whites completely out of the Democratic Party. More than thirty states, led by Georgia, have enacted draconian voter i.d. laws, despite miniscule evidence of voter impersonation fraud. Industrial states are punishing union members to break the most reliable source of progressive organizational and economic clout.
Thirty-five years ago Earth Wind and Fire sang, “When Will We Ever Learn?” When it comes to states rights vs. minority voting rights, apparently the answer is “never.” Fortunately, coalitions of conscience are coming together across the nation. Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan are refusing to allow voter suppression to push our nation quietly back into the bad old days of minority rule. Blacks, Latinos, women and labor union members are no longer junior associates – they are senior partners in the American experience.