Voting Rights Act of 1965 Helps Black Voters Across the Board. Is It Enough?
African-American voting rights have come a long way since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Yet America still hasn’t rid itself of some of the ugly ways in which it systematically oppresses black people through the ballot box, especially at the local level.
A new report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies takes an in-depth look at this enduring discrimination. The report indicates some progress, such as the fact that black voter turnout exceeded that of white voters in four of the past 12 presidential elections since 1965, particularly in 2008 and 2012. The number of black elected politicians has increased from 1,000 to 10,000 over the past 50 years. When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, there were only five black members in the House and Senate combined.
But when LBJ, a Democrat, signed the Act, he also signed away the allegiance of his party’s white voters. White people dominated the Democratic Party 50 years ago; now, according to a Pew Research center poll, 87 percent of Republican voters are white as of 2012. In 1965, around 65 percent of black people voted Democrat; today, that number is 96 percent, according to the report.
At the local electoral level, black voter turnout is especially low. In Ferguson, Mo., 67 percent of the population is African American and 100 percent of its precincts went to President Barack Obama in 2012. Voter turnout was 54 percent. But during the municipal election the following April, residents voted a Republican mayor and six council members into office. All except one were white. Voter turnout was a meager 12 percent.
Nationally, black Americans make up 12.5 percent of the voting age population but hold 5.7 percent of city council seats. Moreover, black people make up just 8.5 percent of state legislatures, 10 percent of the U.S. House and 2 percent of the U.S. Senate.
Khalilah Brown-Dean, co-author of the study and associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, told AlterNet that the low turnout of black voters in local elections has a range of interrelated causes. It can be linked to how black residents are criminalized in their communities just as much as it can be connected to political apathy.
“If you look at African American involvement with the criminal justice system, one of things that happens is that if you have a felony conviction in a lot of states you are barred from voting,” Brown-Dean said. “In some states, that’s a lifetime ban. If you look at not just the people who vote but the people who are eligible to vote, that becomes concentrated in particular cities and particular parts of the city. That overall dilutes voter turnout and participation.”
As it stands, black men make up 35 percent of Americans who are unable to vote because of felony convictions.
A report commissioned by the Department of Justice found the city of Ferguson guilty of practicing racially discriminatory policing against its black residents. Between 2012-2014, 85 percent of people subjected to vehicle stops were African American and 93 percent of those arrested were also black. Ninety-four percent of “failure to comply” charges were against African Americans.
Brown-Dean says situations like Ferguson are isolated but reflect broader tensions connected to local elections.
“These things don’t happen overnight,” she said. “So whether it is the makeup of your police force, your representation on city council, the people who become mayor and to whom they feel beholden once they get into office—all of that created a foundation for Ferguson to emerge. Michael Brown was the center of this, but it was not all about what happened to that young man. It was about years of people feeling like the political process did not listen to them and represent their interests.”