August 28, 2009
Ted Kennedy: Champion of Voting Rights
Amidst all the eulogies for the “liberal lion” of the Senate — Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts — one important part of his legacy is often mentioned in passing, if it gets mentioned at all. That legacy is Senator Kennedy’s role in expanding and protecting voting rights for all Americans.
Because of Ted Kennedy’s work, millions of American voters are able to participate in the most basic function of a citizen in a democracy: they are able to make their voices heard at the ballot box and vote for the candidate of their choosing.
Let’s take a walk down Memory Lane and see how Senator Kennedy’s work has led to major steps forward in increasing voting rights. First, we must recognize that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 laid the groundwork for the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The VRA has been renewed and strengthened several times since then (1970, 1975, and 1982), the latest being in 2006.
How important was the VRA, one might ask? What did it accomplish?
This “act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution” was signed into law 95 years after the amendment was ratified. In those years, African Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to vote. They also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally….
The legislation, which President Johnson signed into law August 6, 1965, outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of Federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote) in those jurisdictions that were “covered” according to a formula provided in the statute. In addition, Section 5 of the act required covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the U.S. Attorney General for any new voting practices and procedures. Section 2, which closely followed the language of the 15th amendment, applied a nationwide prohibition of the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color. The use of poll taxes in national elections had been abolished by the 24th amendment (1964) to the Constitution; the Voting Rights Act directed the Attorney General to challenge the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.
Some might point to the election of an African American President as a direct result of the Voting Rights Act. I would argue that the main focus of the VRA was NOT the candidate but the voter. Greater participation by African Americans and other people of color has indeed led to the election of officials who are members of those communities of color. But that is simply a by-product of giving more Americans access to the ballot box. A candidate does not have to be a member of a particular racial or ethnic or economic group to advocate for their needs — as Ted Kennedy demonstrated throughout his career.
Moving on from the Voting Rights Act, Ted Kennedy helped to pass the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. In the midst of the Vietnam War it did not seem fair to send young Americans to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia without also giving them a voice at the ballot box.
Then he took on campaign finance reform, and authored the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 (FECA), which created the Federal Election Commission and established rules concerning disclosure, public financing and contribution limits. Although several key provisions have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, FECA remains an important statute regulating the financing of U.S. elections. Senator Kennedy knew that the corrupting power of money could tip the balance of power in government against the ordinary voter and fought to level the playing field with FECA.
Any other legislator might have been content to rest on his laurels, since having their name on just one of these monumental laws would have been the crowning achievement of a lawmaker’s career. But Ted Kennedy wasn’t done yet.
In 1990 Ted Kennedy pushed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) through Congress. While the ADA did not directly impact voting rights, it laid the groundwork for key provisions of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 which required that disabled Americans be able to vote in privacy and independence.
Then in a final contribution to voting rights Ted Kennedy passed the National Voter Rights Act (NVRA) in 1993, which is often referred to as the “Motor Voter” act. http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/voting/nvra/activ_nvra.php
The Act requires states to provide the opportunity to apply to register to vote for federal elections by three means:
Section 5 of the Act requires states to provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license, and requires the State to forward the completed application to the appropriate state of local election official.
Section 7 of the Act requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance and all offices that provide state-funded programs primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities. Each applicant for any of these services, renewal of services, or address changes must be provided with a voter registration form of a declination form as well as assistance in completing the form and forwarding the completed application to the appropriate state or local election official.
Section 6 of the Act provides that citizens can register to vote by mail using mail-in-forms developed by each state and the Election Assistance Commission.
As America pauses to honor one of the greatest Senators ever to serve, we should all take a moment to contemplate Ted Kennedy’s achievements in the area of voting rights and campaign finance reform. We are a better, more inclusive and democratic nation because of the contributions of Edward Moore Kennedy.
Let us pay tribute to his work expanding the franchise. It is hard to imagine the 2008 election unfolding the way it did without the foundation laid by Ted Kennedy — the youth vote powered by the 26th Amendment, the massive African American vote thanks to the Voting Rights Act and the major surge in voter registration encouraged by the Motor Voter law.l