Fall 2015 Issue
October 03, 2015

Voting Rights Act: A 50-year lesson in democracy

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Retired teacher Janet Wheile checks a map outlining election districts in Saratoga County. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.
Caption: Retired teacher Janet Wheile checks a map outlining election districts in Saratoga County. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

Over her three decades of teaching, Janet Wheile showed her "Participation in Government" students just how far the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded democracy in the U.S. She began by explaining that voting rights were first enjoyed only by white males who owned property.

"I had my students stand up if they could have voted at the time of the American Revolution. Since the white male students didn't own property, that usually wiped out the class. Then they stood if they would be eligible to vote now. That made us look at what changes had occurred, and more importantly, how change had occurred," said Wheile, a retired member of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake TA.

"The 1965 Voting Rights Act was potent evidence of the long slog to fulfill the promises of Reconstruction," after the Civil War, she said. Voting rights continued to expand, with provisions for same-day voter registration and early voting, for example. But around 2005, when Wheile retired, the climate surrounding voting rights began to cool.

"I have watched an alarming assault on the more than 200-year-old push to increase citizens' ability to participate in democracy by voting," said Wheile, a political activist who has been part of NYSUT's Committee of 100, a delegate to NYSUT's Representative Assembly, and former chair of the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee.

The biggest chill came in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Act. The court nullified the section that required certain jurisdictions, based on their histories of discrimination in voting, to gain federal preclearance prior to making any changes in voting requirements. Within hours, Texas and Mississippi started laying down voting restrictions.

The 5-4 court decision, Wheile said, "threatens to send us back to the days when only a chosen few were allowed to participate in electing the officeholders who make decisions that affect all of our lives."

Since 2013, many other states, including Arkansas, Wisconsin and Ohio, have been busy trampling voting rights with onerous restrictions, such as requiring photo IDs, eliminating same-day and online voting registration, early voting, "Souls to the Polls" Sunday voting and pre-registration for teens about to turn 18.

Teacher and activist Jose Vilson, a member of the United Federation of Teachers, said the Voting Rights Act allows "everyone to have full citizenship in this country. The 2000 presidential elections are evidence that thousands of citizens' voting rights can be stripped with long wait lines, exorbitant ID prices and restricted voting times.

"The false assertion from the majority opinion in the 2013 Supreme Court decision that racism no longer exists only made things worse across the country. We already have low voter rates for eligible voters. We need voting reform to assure that more voices in our country can speak up through that process."

Joseph Paparone, clergy and community organizer for the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, said people of faith are building coalitions, challenging reactionary politicians, and fighting to make sure that the voting progress and victories of the past are not wiped away. The Moral Mondays movement, which began in North Carolina by the Rev. William Barber, for example, has community leaders organizing and marching against some of the most stringent voting restrictions in the country. Barber spoke at a Moral Monday event earlier this year at the Capitol in Albany.

"Any exclusion in the franchise most dramatically affects poor and working class people of color, who are obvious allies in the struggles for worker and economic justice. ... Workers can and must stand in solidarity with the people being targeted by these reactionary voting restrictions. It's a key part of building a strong worker justice movement," Paparone said.

NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees social justice for the union, emphatically agreed.

"We must recognize there is a tremendous amount of work to do. We can't allow for any member of our society to be deprived of the right to vote in our country," he said.