GWEN IFILL: Fifty years ago today, the landmark Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Johnson called the right to vote — quote — “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.”
President Obama marked the occasion today by hosting civil rights leaders, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Congressman John Lewis, at the White House. Half-a-century later, he said, voting rights are still at risk. He singled out a 2013 Supreme Court decision that allows 15 previously monitored states to change their election laws without federal approval.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In practice, we have still got problems. On the ground, there are still too many ways in which people are discouraged from voting. Some of the protections that had been enshrined in the Voting Rights Act itself have been weakened as a consequence of court decisions.
GWEN IFILL: For more on the significance of today’s anniversary, we are joined by Kareem Crayton, a voting rights scholar and consultant, Zoltan Hajnal, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. He’s co-author of a recent report on voter participation. And Imani Clark, she is a student at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college in Waller County, Texas. She is a plaintiff in a challenge to a Texas voter I.D. law overturned by a federal appeals court only yesterday.
Zoltan Hajnal, I want to talk to you a little bit about the findings in your report; 50 years later, how do you quantify the effect of the Voting Rights Act?
ZOLTAN HAJNAL, University of California, San Diego: Well, it’s quantifiable in all sorts of different ways, but two of the main ones are in terms of voter registration.
When the act was passed in 1965, in several states, blacks, only about 15 percent or less of blacks were registered to vote. Very shortly after the act was passed, those registration rates went through the roof. And blacks are now roughly on par with whites in terms of registration in the South.
The other measure is minority representation in office. Again, when the act was passed, only a handful of blacks were in office in the South or across the country. After the act was instituted as well, the number of African-American and Latino and Asian-American elected officials grew year by year, to the point where blacks now have about 10,000 elected positions across the nation, Latinos have about 6,000, and Asian-Americans about — so there’s been tremendous progress. And all this is in large part to the Voting Rights Act.
GWEN IFILL: Imani Clark, you were at the White House today when the president, the attorney general, other people, John Lewis, were speaking about the 50-year anniversary. And I want you to tell us your story. You wanted to vote. You had voted before.
IMANI CLARK, Student, Prairie View A&M University: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: But then the law changed. Tell me what happened.
IMANI CLARK: Well, my freshman year attending Prairie View, I was able to vote during the city election with my student I.D. card. And then soon after that, you know, this law was going into effect that was preventing students like me. And it also was targeting minorities, and it just prevented most of us from voting without a Texas I.D. license or a concealed handgun license.
GWEN IFILL: So why didn’t your student I.D. count for that anymore?
IMANI CLARK: That’s a good question. That’s the question we’re all wondering now.
GWEN IFILL: OK. So, what has happened as a result of it being upheld yesterday or turned over yesterday — overturned yesterday? Does this mean that you can vote?
IMANI CLARK: As of right now, yes, that does mean that I can vote.
But, you know, we know how the game goes. Most likely, they’re going to appeal, and it’s just going to be this ongoing fight. So we will see.
GWEN IFILL: And here’s the other question people ask all the time about voter I.D. cases, which is why not go and get the state-issued I.D.? What’s the barrier to that?
IMANI CLARK: For me, I’m a student, and I’m in many organizations, I have a job as well, and I just have commitments. So being in rural Texas, it’s hard for me to find time to go and get the form of identification that I need. Plus, I don’t have a car, so — and there’s no public transportation either.
So they don’t make it easy for us to get the necessary identification.
GWEN IFILL: Kareem Crayton, I want you to tell me a little bit about another voting rights case which is kind of hanging fire, and this one is in North Carolina. Where does that stand tonight? This isn’t a voter I.D. case. This is what you call a voter suppression case?
KAREEM CRAYTON, Voting Rights Scholar: Indeed.
The legislature in North Carolina after the Republicans took over in 2010 adopted a series of changes in the voting system in the state, and it included limiting access to same-day registration, narrowing the availability of early voting.
And, in all of those cases, there are others as well, the effect was to limit the opportunity of people to cast ballots. That was challenged in a lawsuit that was heard in the Winston-Salem part of North Carolina in the federal district court. The trial just ended, and the judge, the district court judge is pondering a decision, so we should hear back I suspect in a few weeks, or perhaps even months, on that decision. And as in the Texas case, I think everyone expects there to be an appeal.
GWEN IFILL: So when you talk about early voting, you’re talking about voting on Sundays or getting people to the polls early?
KAREEM CRAYTON: Correct.
And these were implemented during the ’90s in a time when the legislature had understood that it was a good thing to expand opportunity for people to cast ballots. Other changes included allowing people to pre-register before they became of age, and all of these things were thought to be good government measures.
There is really no explanation for why it was rolled back under the Republican regime, other than that they claimed it was to protect the vote from fraud, notwithstanding the fact that there was no evidence of fraud. And so the plaintiffs were arguing to the court, it makes no sense to roll back these provisions, particularly when there are very clear indications that they’re going to have significant discriminatory effects on a lot of communities, including young people and racial minority groups as well.
GWEN IFILL: I guess that was my next question, which is why does it have a disproportion impact on minority groups or young people? Why wouldn’t it have the same impact across the board?
KAREEM CRAYTON: Right.
Ms. Clark from Texas really gave a pretty good example of this. If these provisions were made where it really did apply to everyone equally, I think very few people could have a very strong argument against it. But the reason these things are troublesome, these voting restrictions are troublesome, is because they’re very selective.
So you can have a gun license, and that automatically counts for the required I.D., but you can’t have a student I.D. The same-day registration, again, the limitations of early voting are all seemingly burdening people who seem to fall into these groups that a lot of Republicans don’t tend to think that vote for them or that like them, and their friends are otherwise protected.
But more important than that, the Voting Rights Act is designed to protect these communities because we have a long history of excluding and marginalizing them, and that’s really of concern here and the argument that’s being presented to the court.
GWEN IFILL: Zoltan Hajnal, why is it that this hasn’t been more a success than a failure over the 50 years, or has it?
ZOLTAN HAJNAL: Well, I would say it has been a success. We have come a long way from where we were in 1965, for sure, but we still have a long way to go.
And the Voting Rights Act can be part of that. And there are other elements. But if we look, for example, at the number of elected officials, there has been tremendous progress, as I have indicated, but if we look at the halls of power today, they’re still dominated by white Americans. Some 90 percent of all elected officials across the country are white.
And if we look at all kinds of different aspects of the vote, it is still and maybe even increasingly racially divided. So you have a majority of white population controlling a lot of the outcomes, and often to the detriment of racial and ethnic minorities.
And as you have just been talking about, there are signs of moving backward in terms of reducing access to the vote, strict voter I.D. laws and things like that. So, we need the Voting Rights Act. We need it to be beefed up. And we may, in addition to that, need extra provisions that allow minorities a full say in American democracy.
GWEN IFILL: Here’s the landscape. The president today said the Supreme Court has rolled back a section of the law which was considered a setback by Voting Rights Activists, and also you’re waiting on these cases which can be appealed and end up at the Supreme Court.
And today we saw the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who is a supporter of the Voting Rights Act, or at least voted to renew it, say, listen, the Voting Rights Act is intact, it’s fine.
So I guess I want to ask you both this question, starting with you, Kareem Crayton. Is the Voting Rights Act intact?
KAREEM CRAYTON: No.
And I think Senator McConnell — and I take him at his word as being a supporter of the act — if he really understood the impact that it has on communities that have to wait years for litigation to finally conclude to determine what is and isn’t legal, during which there are elections and policies that are adopted, that is really what is lost by not having Section 5, the pre-clearance provision, that stops acts that a legislature might have that has negative effects before they’re enacted.
Under the current regime, you have to go to court and ultimately the Supreme Court to actually resolve the legality of these rules. That’s what is being lost.
GWEN IFILL: Zoltan Hajnal, briefly.
ZOLTAN HAJNAL: I 100 percent agree. Pre-clearance is the key to the Voting Rights Act. And with the Supreme Court striking that down, it’s now — the burden is now on individuals and organizations to prove that an act is discriminatory.
That costs a lot of time and money, whereas, before, the federal government, the Justice Department had oversight and could prevent any disenfranchising laws from occurring even before they were put into law.
GWEN IFILL: And, Imani, are you optimistic, as a young person who could stand to benefit from whatever the outcome is or lose?
IMANI CLARK: I’m keeping hopeful. I’m staying hopeful. I really am.
I just really wish that students my age and just younger people will really understand the significance of this and how important it is to vote. Many people, you know, have the right to vote and can vote, but they don’t vote. And I just wish that I just can. I have been waiting years just to be able to participate in something like this.
GWEN IFILL: In the end, if you have the right, you have got to use it. Right?
IMANI CLARK: Exactly.
GWEN IFILL: Zoltan Hajnal, Imani Clark, Kareem Crayton, thank all very much.
IMANI CLARK: Thank you.
ZOLTAN HAJNAL: Pleasure.
GWEN IFILL: Online, we have put together a special project using the voices of the people who were affected by the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago. You can learn their stories on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.