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Will you lose your right to vote? Confusion over Voting Rights Act has many Blacks believing they may lose the privilege.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Case in point speculation has been running rampant across the Internet and radio airwaves regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and conjecture that blacks will lose their right to vote if the act is not renewed in the year 2007. In the offices of BLACK ENTERPRISE alone, we've received numerous angry and concerned letters from readers demanding to know if the possibility is true or not.

Well, relax. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is indeed up for vote in 10 years, there is absolutely no chance that blacks will lose their right to vote. None. But there is another danger on the horizon.

To clarify what's at stake, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) issued a fact sheet explaining the legal issues involved, which she hopes will clear up a large misunderstanding. "African American voting rights were granted by the 15th Amendment. Expiration of the Voting Rights Act will not terminate the rights granted under that amendment."

The 15th Amendment, enacted shortly after the Civil War, guaranteed African Americans the right to vote. But since the amendment is dependent on judicial interpretation, many Southern states at the time used unreasonable measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests or grandfather clauses to hinder newly emancipated slaves from voting. These tactics often escalated into violence.

Several decades later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made such procedures unconstitutional. In fact, Section Five of the statute requires pre-clearance by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department before any local government could impose such bully tactics. Therefore, "the Act gave the 15th Amendment its teeth," says Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, vice president at the Center for Constitutional Rights (formerly the Legal Defense Fund) in New York City.

But if the Act has no impact on allowing blacks to vote, why is it still important today? Because the Act remains a vital "buffer" to the 15th Amendment and is scheduled to expire in 10 years. The process for re-authorization (or extension) requires a majority vote in Congress along with the President's signature. If it is not extended, the return of poll taxes and literacy tests is a remote possibility, but in this age of a Republican controlled House and Senate, even that far-flung prospect is too close for comfort to many.

"This could also lead to attacks on the black congressional districts and increased insensitivity toward blacks in general," says Professor Alvin Thornton, chairman of Howard University's political science department in Washington, D.C. "In essence, it will almost be a return to the day of the Klansman," he says.

So what proactive steps can the African American community take 10 years prior to the 2007 expiration date? "Education is the key," continues Thornton. "We have to educate people about this issue, because ultimately it has to be debated in Congress for the next several years before it can be extended," he says. However, McLaughlin would rather wait until the next Congressional elections in 1998 because, "with the conservative Congress we have right now, I'd be afraid they just might not extend it.
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Title Annotation:Washington Report
Author:Williams-Harold, Bevolyn
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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