If Lyndon Johnson, the 36th President of the United States of America, was ever going to turn in his grave it might be now. Johnson was the President who, in 1965, signed into law the Voting Rights Act (VRA) which enabled Martin Luther King and other African-American leaders of the time to achieve their dream of helping their fellow African-Americans win the right to vote for the first time. But now the state of Arizona, fresh from passing a fiendishly harsh migration law, wants to wind back the VRA, despite the fact that in 2006 the Senate voted 98-0 to approve the law for another 25 years.
Last Thursday Arizona’s Attorney-General Tom Horne, a Republican, launched legal proceedings that seek to declare as unconstitutional the requirement for states to have any changes they make to voting cleared by the federal government. The so-called “pre-clearance” requirement is viewed by supporters of the VRA as critical because it prevents states making it difficult for minorities to vote through mechanisms such as ballot papers in English only, or having polling booths in predominantly minorities areas.
Arizona’s argument is that voting equality has been achieved and that African-Americans and Hispanics get elected. Horne, in a media release issued August 5, argued:
“In 1974, Arizona became only the second state in the nation to popularly elect a Hispanic governor … As Congress recognised, despite reauthorising the Voting Rights Act in 2006, ‘significant progress’ has been made in addressing the concerns that originally justified the VRA. Congress noted ‘increased numbers of registered minority voters, minority voter turnout, and minority representation’.”
Arizona’s attack on the VRA comes hot on the heels of a law it passed earlier this year and that is headed to the Supreme Court after the Obama Administration opposed it, that allows for police to stop anyone and ask for migration papers. That law is said by opponents to enable the police to indulge in racial profiling.
President Obama is also opposing Arizona’s attempt to wind back the VRA. His Attorney-General Eric Holder said in a statement issued August 25 that the VRA “plays a vital role in our society by ensuring that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted”.
Arizona’s large Hispanic population tends to vote for the Democrats and the state’s Republicans have a history of trying to disenfranchise this group. Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group said in September last year that a report it commissioned ranked “Arizona last among 10 states evaluated for voting laws, concluding that the state’s policies on voter registration, its proof of citizenship requirement, and its record of inadequate outreach to groups protected by the Voting Rights Act present excessive hurdles to voting”.
*Greg Barns is national president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance