One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, bringing to an end the Civil War. What had begun as a sectional war by which the South sought to preserve and expand slavery into the western territories, ended with the collapse of the South and the liberation of 4 million slaves.
The end of the war and the end of slavery left former slaves voteless, and powerless … but free. With Reconstruction, blacks did gain the vote and elected many of their own to offices in the South. This was only possible with federal intervention and occupation of the Southern states. As soon as the federal government withdrew from the South, the white establishment re-asserted political and economic power. Anti-black terrorism in the guise of the Ku Klux Klan spread across the South, blacks were barred from voting by laws passed by white-dominated legislatures, poll taxes, intimidation and fear. Jim Crow was embedded in the politics and economy of the South for almost 100 years.
It took the Civil Rights movement, occurring when many of us or our parents were kids or young adults, to upend the segregation, intimidation and voter restrictions of the South. The progress of that movement was only possible with federal intervention and federal oversight of Southern election practices and rules and customs. Political changes brought new educational and economic opportunity to African Americans, as well. This is our history within our lifetimes.
We tend to think that is all water under the bridge. But think of the Supreme Court’s current ruling which prevents the Department of Justice from oversight of election laws and the subsequent voter ID laws put in place in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Wisconsin, among other states.
This virus of prejudice is not limited to the South. We see it in our own state, with arrests for “driving while black,” with disproportionate sentencing and incarceration of young men of color, with the accelerating income gaps among the wealthy, the upper class, and the rest of society, with the public disinvestment in the higher education institutions that have provided pathways of progress for millions of poor and working-class young people in the past. We also see inequity based on race in election law and election outcomes in our state.
Consider Yakima, a city in which 2 out of every 5 residents is Latino, and yet in which no Latinos there have ever been elected to the city council or the school board or the Legislature. Because of its at-large elections, the city locks out minority candidates who would get elected if voting was by district. Now the U.S. Department of Justice has ordered Yakima to re-structure its election districts to make possible the fair representation of Latino voters.
Yakima’s practice of having district primary elections to select general election candidates who then run at-large is common throughout the state. And it tends to make winners out of mainstream (and white) candidates and leave everyone else on the margin. That points to the need for a statewide voting rights act that will prevent this sort of sidelining of people when their ethnicity and where they live fold together. State Rep. Luis Moscoso, D- Mountlake Terrace, developed House Bill 1745, the Washington Voting Rights Act, to give citizens a legal cause of action to obtain the right to voting and representation, if current election districts block fair representation. The legislation would enable local authorities to redraw election district lines to enable fair elections and not be in violation of the federal Voting Rights Law.
Representative Moscoso’s bill is a straightforward law, remedying the denial of representation and increasing the utility of the voting franchise for those of our society who are the least powerful. Elections are not supposed to be mere window dressing to make us look like a democracy. With free and fair voting, they are the essence of democracy. Voting is the fundamental expression of our democracy when the outcomes are not predetermined by race, privilege or practice. That’s why we need the Voting Rights Act.
John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.