The LBJ Presidential Library’s recent civil rights summit seems to have achieved its two related goals, informing a new generation about Lyndon Johnson’s historic presidential achievements and demonstrating their continuing relevance to today’s issues.
It also may have generated some much-needed energy for current efforts by the Democratic Party and civil rights groups to expand voting opportunities and protect existing laws from Republican-led efforts to curb the impact of Johnson’s landmark Voting Rights Act.
Voting issues will get a more extensive airing next year when the LBJ Library marks the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary. But the topic has come up often this year because, unlike the 1964 Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination in public accommodations and many other areas of American life, the voting rights measure remains under direct legal and political challenge a half-century later.
Those challenges are based on an alleged need to prevent voter fraud, despite the lack of evidence it’s a serious problem. They generally take one of two forms:
First, many states adopted voter identification requirements that make voting harder for poorer and older Americans, notably Hispanics, African-Americans and seniors. Texas has become a poster child for such practices, through its highly restrictive voter ID law and the legislative and congressional redistricting measures that would curb the political clout of its rapidly growing Hispanic community.
Second, states are reversing the trend of encouraging greater voter turnout through more extensive early voting. Some are reducing not only the number of early voting days but the hours for voting on weekends, when churches and other organizations serving minorities have often organized voting by their members.
For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, one of many GOP presidential hopefuls, recently signed a bill eliminating weekend and evening voting in a state that has the second highest level of voting participation. That could help his re-election by holding down African-American voting.
The Justice Department has moved aggressively to challenge some of these acts, filing court cases against an array of restrictive North Carolina voter laws and the Texas redistricting plans.
During the LBJ Library conference, a veteran of those 1960s civil rights struggles, Andrew Young, who is a former United Nations ambassador, congressional member and Atlanta mayor, made a compromise proposal, seconded by former President Bill Clinton, that would accept the concept of voter identification but in a way that protects the voting rights of minorities, the poor and the elderly. It would add photographs to Social Security cards and make them a universal voter identification standard.
“I’m not against photo identification, but only as long as the cards are free and easily accessible,” Young said. He urged President Barack Obama to implement the proposal through executive action. Clinton, while not advocating executive action, said putting photos on Social Security cards would be “a way forward that eliminates error.”
But the idea, while appealing, may not fully resolve the problem, since obtaining the necessary photos would still be hard for millions of poorer, rural Americans. And it would take some time to update the more than 200 million Social Security cards.
Besides, liberals and libertarians might regard introduction of a government-issued national ID card as a potential invasion of privacy. There would also be opposition to an expanded federal government role in what traditionally has been a state jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, as Republicans in many states seek to limit voting opportunities, congressional Democrats are pushing a measure that would make them easier.
The Voter Empowerment Act would modernize registration procedures by providing permanent online registration at age 18, make voting easier for those with disabilities and curb the ability of states to prevent voting.
And in a rare example of bipartisanship, the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, has joined two senior Democrats in proposing a measure restoring the Justice Department’s authority to require pre-clearance of voter law changes, which the Supreme Court struck down in June, but update the requirements for its use.
Unfortunately, there is no sign of movement on either measure. Chances are when next year’s conference is held in Austin, Texas, an underlying theme will be the continuing impact of some of the problems the 1965 act was intended to stop.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.