Is The Voting Rights Act Still Necessary?

An effort is underway by at least two states to challenge key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. As voters in Alabama and Mississippi go to the polls to vote in their states' primaries, host Michel Martin discusses the act with former U.S. Congressman Artur Davis.

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ALLISON KEYES, HOST:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a conversation with our money coach about how scam artists are going after the elderly. A postal service inspector will tell us how to protect ourselves and the people we care about. But first, voters in Alabama and Mississippi cast ballots today, and that got us thinking about the legislation that helped to protect voting rights in those states. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed practices that prevented many African-Americans from voting throughout much of the South, ending literacy tests and poll taxes that had been selectively applied to keep blacks from voting.

But almost 50 years later, there's a debate about whether some provisions of that law are still needed. Just yesterday, the U.S. Justice Department used it to block a law in Texas that would have required voters to show government issued photo IDs at the polls. And now with one perspective on that issue is Artur Davis. He's a Democrat who represented Alabama's Seventh District in the United States Congress for eight years and now he's a fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

Artur Davis spoke earlier with Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

ARTUR DAVIS: Good to talk to you and good to talk to your audience.

MARTIN: One of the reasons we called you is that you recently ran for Governor of Alabama. You did not succeed in your efforts to become the first African-American Governor of Alabama, but having just, you know, travelled statewide and talk to so many voters from so many different backgrounds, how is this law viewed now and does it break down along racial lines or not?

DAVIS: Well, here's the reality, Michel. The Alabama that I ran in two years ago is a very different place than the framers of the Voting Rights Act would have anticipated. It's a very different place, frankly, than we had even 15, 20 years ago in the South. One of the ironies of our race is that I was the only African-American candidate in the history of the state who got over 40 percent of the white vote.

I was also the African-American candidate who was a Democrat who did the poorest among African-American voters. Both those things happened at the same time. The fact that those two things happened in tandem I think makes it clear that voters don't simply walk in and look at their skin color and then cast a vote based on that. It's more complex and more subtle than that.

MARTIN: So how do you think that is viewed now, given those facts which I do think are helpful in sort of framing this issue? How do you think voters look at this issue now?

DAVIS: Look, the Voting Rights Act is something that I think Southerners - black, white, Democrat, Republican - understand has been very important in shaping the region. You could argue that the Voting Rights Act has been even more important than the Civil Rights Act. There's a chunk of folks who don't get the benefit of the Civil Rights Act because they're not working, they're not employable.

Well, the Voting Rights Act gives everyone an opportunity to participate in the process. Now, having said that, the fact that legislation has been a force for good frankly doesn't mean that you don't occasionally need to reexamine it and that at all times you don't have an obligation to make sure that the way we're interpreting the legislation is honestly the way its meant to be interpreted.

MARTIN: So what do you think this new scrutiny should look like?

DAVIS: Well, there are different components of the Voting Rights Act that I think people argue about today. One of them is the very specific application and the context of voter ID. I'm a supporter of voter ID. Seventy percent of people in the country are. We're a society that operates off people presenting ID and saying and verifying they're who they say they are. That's a function of how we enter many buildings.

It's a function of how we cash checks, a function of how we exercise our ability to get a book from a library. I've never run into anybody who said to me, oh, you know, I had to present ID when I went to cash that check and I just feel so intimidated and so oppressed by that experience. I'm not bothered by an ID, and particularly when you look at a state like Alabama that has so many exceptions to the hard requirement of an ID.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in just briefly just to say I'm speaking with Artur Davis. He's a former Congressman who represented Alabama's Seventh District for eight years. We're talking about the Voting Rights Act and whether it is still relevant today. Talk a little bit more, though, where you do see a problem, and I understand that gerrymandering is something that...

DAVIS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...that concerns you and you think that what some call hyper-gerrymanding is an unintended consequence of the Voting Rights Act? Could you talk a little bit more about that?

DAVIS: Yes, we have - and when I say we, I mean courts, the Department of Justice - have over-interrupted in my opinion the Voting Rights Act to require that there be a super-majority of African-Americans in a district. Now, the law doesn't say that. The law says a majority. We've kind of over-interrupted that to say that, well, it can't just be a majority, it's got to be 65 percent. A lot of African-American politicians feel put upon if they can't get at least a 65 percent district.

The problem is that if you draw a 65 percent African-American legislative or congressional district in the Deep South, what you have to do is pretty much pull all the African-Americans into one district. Well, what does that do to the other districts? It means the other districts are not party competitive. They're not well integrated, and you end up with the politics that's more racially polarized than ever.

You take the state of Alabama right now. There is one congressional district in Alabama that a Democrat could win. That's the one that I used to represent. That district's about 65 to 67 percent African-American. Every other district in the state is not competitive. There were two districts that used to be competitive. Well, now those districts aren't party competitive. So you have this interesting alliance around these gerrymandering and these super-majority requirements. African-American Democrats like them because a lot of the African-American leadership would rather have people in office who don't in anyway have to reach out to white voters who are living in their district.

They want to be able to elect not just a black but a black who's going to consistently vote a certain way, and (unintelligible) Republicans love it just as much because a lot of Republicans have decided, you know what, we kind of like the fact that we can write off one district in Alabama but we can pretty much take the other six districts and dominate them.

They'll take that trade-off any day. They'll trade one for six anytime. Now, I don't think that's a good thing. You take off your party hat and you think about what would make the South a better place for the people who live there. One party politics does not work well, whether it's Montgomery or Moscow, and I think that we would do very well if we moved away from this gerrymandering and hyper-partisanship to creating districts where candidates had to reach out to all different kinds of people.

So that part of the Voting Rights Act, I don't like the way courts have interrupted it. There's ample room to rethink that part of the act.

MARTIN: What would cause that to happen?

DAVIS: Well, this is the problem. A lot of the Republican attorney generals who are having to bring these cases, their party is perfectly happy with the super-majority requirements for black districts because of what it does to politics in the rest of the state. So this is a classic instance when I think good old-fashioned party politics is stopping people from making the legal argument that would frankly resonate with more people and would be the better and more important legal argument.

If you ask me what I think is the biggest unintended consequence of the Voting Rights Act, I would say it's a racially polarized voting pattern in the South that is pushed in part by the way we draw districts and the politics of winning in certain districts.

MARTIN: And that is an issue that I think concerns a lot of Americans more broadly, even those who don't live in the affected districts. So before we let you go, you've already said that the political leaders on both sides are invested in it. They both benefit from it, from their perspective. What would change the conversation?

DAVIS: Well, as a practical matter, this one aspect of the act, the gerrymandering is something that I think does worry a lot of ordinary people who aren't in politics and don't have to answer to either party, because this is how it works as a practical matter. Gerrymandering means that communities are broken up. Montgomery, Alabama is in three different congressional districts. Jefferson County is the biggest county in Alabama and has all kinds of unique needs and unique problems. Jefferson County is split into two districts.

Tuscaloosa's split into two districts. There are school boards around the state that because of voter act-based gerrymandering they're split. There are school districts that separate people in Mobile and tie them to people who are in Selma. Well, I think people going to school in Mobile probably have more in common with each other than people who are living in Selma, and so on and so on.

The congressional district that I used to represent now extends from Montgomery to Tuscaloosa. Montgomery, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and the Black Belt are all a very different set of interests. So I think a lot of people, black and white, are beginning to understand that the gerrymandering is making communities weaker and it's making it hard for their communities to come together to seek federal help and federal support.

That's a practical consequence that bothers a lot of people, even if they have no interest in all this highfalutin stuff about consensus building and all that kind of stuff. The fact that communities are split and neighbors are split from each other - that is a real strike against the way the Voting Rights Act is interpreted.

Then the last point I'll say about this is the Voting Rights Act was written with the premise that a guy like Bobby Jindal would never exist - the Indian-American Republican governor of Louisiana who won with the majority of the white vote.

The Voting Rights Act was written with the premise that a guy like Tim Scott would never exist. The black Republican congressman who represents a district that John McCain carried. The Voting Rights Act was written with the premise that hardly any white people would ever vote for a person of color. That's not the world we live in now. White voters have made it very clear in the South that they will vote for someone who shares their political beliefs.

Does race matter? Of course it does, in both parties. But the overwhelming majority of whites are willing to make a judgment based on what they think of the person who's running. And you don't have to hypothesize about that. You've seen it with people like Jindal and Scott, even the numbers that I drew among whites in the democratic primary. So given that, I think there's room - not to scrap the act, that's not going to happen - but to try to figure out how you make it workable for a region that's very different from what it was in 1965.

MARTIN: Artur Davis was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama's 7th District from 2003 to 2011. He's currently a fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, but we were able to catch up with him at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he has a speaking engagement. He was with us on the line from there.

Mr. Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: No. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: Coming up, we've all heard the ads on TV and radio advertising those payday loans, but getting some fast cash before your next paycheck could come with a huge cost, including a range of fees and triple-digit interest rates. We'll hear one story of a payday loan gone bad and what consumers can do to protect themselves. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

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