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Without the Voting Rights Act, There Would Be No Minority Elected Officials

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

This an entry in a series of blogs to keep people informed on current election reform and voting rights issues in the news.

Featured Story of the Week:

“The Voting Rights Act and the Election of Nonwhite Officials” - PS: Political Science and Politics

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There is a strong correlation between the Voting Rights Act and the election of minorities to national, state and local levels office, according to this study in the July issue of the PS: Political Science and Politics. In fact, the numbers indicate that without the provisions in the Voting Rights Act, there would be almost no minority elected officials anywhere in the United States.

Historically, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was developed to ensure access to the political process for people of color. Two temporary provisions under the VRA have the greatest influence on the rising number of minorities in office. Section 5 requires covered jurisdictions to attain approval from federal authorities before changing voting laws and procedures. This section has been renewed four times by Congress in 1970, 1975, and 1982, and 2006. In 1975, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other Latino organizations fought to extend coverage of the VRA to monolingual, Spanish-speaking voters. The minority language provisions - Sections 203 and 4(f)4 - provide coverage for American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives and Latinos. They were both renewed in 1982 for 10 years and 1992 for 15. Last year, both Sections were extended. Read more on the minority language provision in this report by professors Israel Waismel-Manor and Michael Jones-Correa. Although the recognition of “so-called majority-minority” districts have brought more nonwhites in Congress, whites still overrepresent the House at 1.3 times their proportion to the population, “followed by Blacks at 0.7, and then in descending order by Latinos at 0.5, Asians at 0.2, and American Indians at 0.1.” The majority of nonwhite members are elected from districts covered by VRA, primarily Section 203, which covered every Latino member in the House. Evidence of the effects of majority-minority districts are seen in the average of Black and Latino members' districts, which comprise of a majority of Blacks (50.4%) and Latinos (60.4%), respectively.

“Similar to the situation in Congress, minorities are also severely underrepresented in the nation's state legislatures, as nonwhites represent only 12% of all state legislators.” A higher number of Latinos, Asians and American Indian state legislators were elected from districts with Section 203 coverage compared to Blacks, who were more frequently elected in districts covering Section 5. Converse to other groups, Blacks were largely elected by their own respective majority-ethnic district.

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Regardless of the level of office, the study’s authors “find that the vast majority of nonwhite elected officials were elected from jurisdictions covered by the VRA, especially 203.” The importance of the Voting Rights Act to providing a more balanced representative democracy cannot be overstated. Without provisions of the Voting Rights Act, there would essentially not be any minority elected officials in the United States. Voting rights activists would do well to remember this as the confirmation fight for a new Attorney General heats up. Whoever leads the Department of Justice will have final responsibility for enforcing the Voting Rights Act and as this study makes clear, the stakes for ensuring a functional and balances representative democracy could not be higher.

Quick Link

“About Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.” U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Divisions, Voting Section.

In Other News:

Michigan election officials are reminding voters that the state's voter ID law will be enforced in November. This will be the first election in which the state will enforce the 1996 law, which was blocked by then Attorney General Frank Kelley for violating the 14th amendment. Earlier this year, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an opinion that voter ID is legal. Read more of this story in the Examiner.

A bill ensuring that “California's newest citizens will be allowed to vote” passed the state legislature this week. If approved by the governor, the bill would allow immigrants who become citizens after the 15-day registration deadline to register on Election Day. Read more of this Associated Press story in the Salinas Californian.

Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote’s Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).

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