Emerging from the bloody protests in Selma, Ala., the Voting Rights Act was initially heralded as a declaration that the federal government would no longer tolerate the open racism of the segregated South. But this narrow mandate to monitor elections in six Southern states grew quietly over the years, extending to unexpected corners of the country, including the Bronx. Jose Comacho, a Bronx grocer, sued unsuccessfully in 1958 to have the English literacy test removed as a voting requirement. The borough landed on the list of places to be monitored more than four decades ago, along with Brooklyn and Manhattan, when the statewide English-language literacy test required of voters suppressed participation in Hispanic and black neighborhoods around the city to rates low enough to prompt federal intervention. That test, then used by the local political machine to hold on to power as the minority population swelled, is long gone, but the federal oversight has remained. As the Supreme Court reviews a section of this landmark measure that requires federal approval of changes to voting procedures, with members of the court’s conservative majority suggesting last week that it could be time to end it, the Bronx offers a case study into arguments for and against continuing the half-century effort to monitor elections through a racial prism.
Critics have pointed to the Bronx, where most of the top elected officials are Latino or black, as evidence that these federal efforts address a problem that no longer exists. But supporters say the Bronx and other boroughs, where charges of gerrymandering districts remain common, serve as a reminder that the problems that prompted the law often manifest themselves in places and in ways where racism is difficult to recognize.
Even some of those who support the Voting Rights Act suggested that it was no longer needed in New York City. Michael Benjamin, a former state assemblyman in the Bronx, said that the law had helped scores of minorities get elected to office in the borough, and that it should now fall to those local officials, not the federal government, to enforce voting rights. “When you break your leg, they put it in a cast, and when your leg heals, they take it off,” Mr. Benjamin said. “I’m saying it’s worked, take the cast off.”
But Norman Siegel, a prominent civil-rights lawyer, echoed other city leaders who suggested that barriers to voting could be hard to recognize and might be unintended, like budget-related reductions in polling sites or staff that result in long lines. “It’s not like the poll tax or the literacy test, but it’s still preventing people from voting,” Mr. Siegel said. “No one thinks of blatant racism in New York, but there are subtle forms of disenfranchisement that still exist.”