Voting Rights at a Crossroads: Return to the Past or an Opportunity for the Future?

Publication year2004
CitationVol. 29 No. 02




Barbara Arnwine(fn*)

Good afternoon. I want to open by conveying my thanks to Professor John Mitchell for that introduction. I want to extend my compliments to Dean Kellye Testy and to the members of the Law Review for conceiving and sponsoring this Symposium. Greetings to all assembled guests, it is indeed a pleasure to be here today. But before I start my address, I wanted to say how very lucky the students of Seattle University are to have Joaquin Avila, one of our nation's foremost voting rights and civil rights legal minds as a professor. It is a special privilege to have the opportunity to learn from one of our nation's keenest civil rights practitioners.

I. Introduction

As we all know, leadership is the key to motivating people and institutions to accomplish great things. In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy called 250 leaders of the Bar to the East Wing of the White House from which the Lawyers' Committee was formed to provide leadership to the legal profession by marshalling the resources of the private bar, particularly those of the nation's most prominent law firms, to fully confront racial injustice and promote racial justice. Over the years the Lawyers' Committee has advanced President Kennedy's vision by mobilizing pro bono law firm services for the poor and excluded in our nation and by promoting diversity and maintaining a global perspective on those challenges.

Being that this year is the 40th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the focus of my presentation this afternoon is on "Voting Rights at a Crossroad: Return to the Past or an Opportunity for the Future?" As students who are on the career path to becoming practitioners of law, and as attorneys and law professors, no role is more important to us than enhancing our democracy. In today's speech I will address the topic of voting rights from a national perspective highlighting the most pressing challenges. In addressing this theme, there are four areas of voting rights that I will cover: * Election Protection* Election Reform* Reauthorization of the Expiring Provisions of the Voting Rights Act Felon Re-enfranchisement

I have chosen this theme because democracy, the fundamental underpinning of our society, is endangered by racial discrimination, hostility to voters, especially those perceived as newcomers, lack of access due to disenfranchising laws and governmentally-imposed obstacles, election administration incompetence, an erosion of confidence in voting machines and vote counting, indifference, and disaffection. Here in Washington State, you have just witnessed a dizzy, convoluted vote counting process because of a close election that left many voters without confidence in the electoral process. All of these delimiting factors meant that in 2004, despite a record turnout of some 110 million voters, nevertheless, there were still 75 million eligible non-voters, including over 30 million registered non-voters, who did not participate in the electoral process. This abysmally low rate of voter participation is the worst in any Western industrialized democracy. Other nations have placed a higher priority on ensuring voter participation in elections by declaring a na-tionwide holiday to avoid conflicts with work, school schedules, or other demands and/or by having multiple days of voting. Again, the United States differs from other Western democracies in lacking a uniform federal system of election administration allowing for uniform procedures for all citizens. A large part of the disenfranchisement of non-voters lies with our decentralized election system which allows states to set their own election laws, and with many of these states delegating significant discretion in election administration to local municipalities. Nor does the open political affiliation of election administrators, including Secretaries of State or Directors of elections, who serve as Chairs of political campaigns, imbue any confidence in the voting public that there will be independent and impartial administration of elections and in the counting of votes. And too often, the brunt of the worst in election administration is borne by racial minorities whose votes are systematically denied through registration and voting errors.

This state of affairs is especially shocking when one considers the hope that existed with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Faced with literacy tests, grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and outright violence and intimidation, the right to political participation was effectively precluded for millions of Americans prior to the enactment of this historic legislation. On August 6, 1965, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it was not an event that happened out of the goodness of the heart of Congress. Instead, the road to the Voting Rights Act was one marked by tremendous sacrifices, as popularized in James Weldon Johnson's renowned poem "Life Every Voice and Sign"-also known as the "Negro National Anthem"-which notes "the blood of the slaughtered." In March, I joined thousands who traveled to Selma, Mississippi to participate in the 40th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 civil rights marchers seeking equal voting rights for African Americans were beaten senselessly by state troopers. Indeed, as I rode with Rev. Jesse Jackson from Montgomery, Alabama to Selma for the commemorative march, the entire drive was infused with a sense of surrealism as Mississippi state troopers in 2005 provided us a police car escort and Rev. Jackson would remark from time to time, "Right over there is the spot where they killed [X or Y]." These sacrifices are still fresh...

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