Fifty years ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, he felt, his daughter Luci said, “a great sense of victory on one side and a great sense of fear on the other.” According to Ari Berman, a political correspondent for The Nation, he knew the law would transform American politics and democracy more than any other civil rights bill in the 20th century, but he also feared that it would deliver the South to the Republican Party for years to come. Both predictions proved to be accurate. “The revolution of 1965 spawned an equally committed group of counterrevolutionaries,” Berman writes in “Give Us the Ballot.” “Since the V.R.A.’s passage, they have waged a decades-long campaign to restrict voting rights.” Berman argues that these counterrevolutionaries have “in recent years, controlled a majority on the Supreme Court” and “have set their sights on undoing the accomplishments of the 1960s civil rights movement.”
Berman’s claim that those he calls the counterrevolutionaries — including Chief Justice John Roberts — have set out to undo the accomplishments of the 1960s is, of course, contested. Still, Berman usefully explores how the debate over voting rights for the past 50 years has been a debate between two competing visions: Should the Voting Rights Act “simply provide access to the ballot,” as conservatives claim, or should it “police a much broader scope of the election system, which included encouraging greater representation for African-Americans and other minority groups”? Regardless of where you fall on this policy question, one historical trend is clear: Every time the Voting Rights Act came up for renewal, from 1969 to 2006, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House repeatedly endorsed the broader interpretation. And the Supreme Court repeatedly responded by imposing the narrower interpretation by judicial fiat.
The initial success of the Voting Rights Act in increasing minority voter registration is striking and impressive: In the decades after Johnson signed the act, black voter registration in the South soared from 31 percent to 73 percent and the number of African-American elected officials nationwide expanded from fewer than 500 to 10,500. And in 1969 the Warren court, by a 7-2 vote, held that the act prevented Mississippi from adopting an at-large election system for county supervisors, since countywide elections were harder for minority candidates to win. But after Richard Nixon won the election of 1968 with a Southern strategy, he appointed four Supreme Court justices who took a less expansive view of the scope of the Voting Rights Act.
Full Article: ‘Give Us the Ballot,’ by Ari Berman – The New York Times.