Can Obama Mend the Voting Rights Act?

Can Obama Mend the Voting Rights Act?

In the wake of President Obama's meeting with activists about the historic legislation, Charles F. Coleman breaks down what you need to know right now

Charles F. Coleman Jr.

by Charles F. Coleman Jr., July 30, 2013

Can Obama Mend the Voting Rights Act?

leans toward the right on most issues of this nature. While the president's meeting yesterday was closed door, those who have spoken about it said that there were several reassurances given by President Obama, Attorney General Holder, and other administration officials that they are as committed as ever to ensure that voting rights are not curtailed. This will likely mean encouraging voting improprieties to be reported to the Department of Justice, which will undoubtedly be keeping a very close eye out to investigate and prosecute any wrongdoing. There is also discussion of a widespread grass roots campaign across coalitions involving many of the community leaders represented at the meeting to spearhead massive voter registration drives not only for the next presidential election, but immediately before any state and local elections take place.

The best strategy for a long term revival of the Voting Rights Act provisions which were struck down is to have Congress continuously monitor the levels of participation of Black voters in the states that had been previously been under watch. This would include studying the numbers of eligible Black voters who are registered and who ultimately make it to the polls. The studies may involve third party neutral think tanks that are commissioned to provide Congress with reliable data. If the data shows that the absence of the provisions in the Voting Rights Act has spurred a significant decrease in participation from Blacks in the electoral process, it may be a helpful tool for policy-makers and lobbyists to advocate for new legislation from Congress that will again protect the rights of all citizens.

The difficulty here is that the present Congress is overwhelmingly Republican and unlikely to be swayed--even in the face of hard evidence-- for the need for any new legislation which could be couched as catering to the Black community. Because of this, the administration will need to engineer even more creative solutions to hold the line until they can successfully move Congress toward new legislation. One approach with potential viability is encouraging high levels of participation in state and local races to help elect local legislators who will enact local state laws to protect its citizens. By attacking the problem in smaller chunks, on the local level, rather than trying to focus immediately on another Federal overhaul, the administration may be able to prevent any major changes until the present make up of Congress looks a little different and data supporting the need for new Federal legislation might prove more persuasive.

While the problem is indeed complex, it is encouraging to see the president and high-ranking officials like the Attorney General as proactive and vocal in voicing their displeasure with the SCOTUS' decision in Shelby. It remains to be seen how drastic the effects of the decision will be, however, there do remain options that, if effective, should help slow the country's return to that march in Selma.  

Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former King's County (Brooklyn, NY) prosecutor and a federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights. Follow him on Twitter: @CFColemanJr

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