Voting Rights Act applies now more than ever

By Rochelle McConkie

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was instated, barring discrimination against one’s right to vote because of race, religion, color or creed. Now, more than 40 years later, many Americans of minority status are still fighting for this basic democratic right.

Sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the 10th-annual Rocco C. and Marion S. Siciliano Forum, titled, “Considerations on the Status of the American Society,” was held Thursday at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

The forum honored the Sicilianos and included a keynote speaker and two panels on the Voting Rights Act. Rocco Siciliano has been honored nationally for his life of public service and received an honorary doctorate at the U in 2001.

Rocco Siciliano stressed education as a catalyst for change. “Once people hear the facts, not just opinions or hunches, people will realize that there is a real need for this statute-the need is still here today.”

At the forum, civil rights attorney Laughlin McDonald spoke on the topic, “The Future of the Voting Rights Act: Democracy in Danger?”

McDonald is the director of the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. He has represented minorities in many civil rights cases, working primarily in Atlanta and the South in general.

With the recent renewal of the Voting Rights Act, opponents have argued that the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and discrimination is dead and that race does not play a factor in the election process. McDonald argued otherwise.

Citing examples from recent events, McDonald related the comments of former Selma, Ala., sheriff Jim Clark, who when asked about his violent role in the 1965 voting rights march known as “Bloody Sunday,” said, “I’d do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again.”

McDonald has worked closely with cases dealing with Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, which states that voting provisions cannot be passed until federal courts or the attorney general rule that they do not have any discriminatory effects or purposes.

Despite this amendment, McDonald said he has seen many states enact measures that encourage white block voting and exclude blacks and minorities from participating in elections.

Recently, Georgia proposed a bill requiring all voters to present photo identification at the polls, an act that has a striking similarity to previously outlawed poll taxes. The act is also in violation of the Georgia Constitution, the Equal Protection Act and the Voting Rights Act.

“None of this voting rights litigation suggests that we have outgrown our need for the Voting Rights Act or the 14th or 15th Amendments,” McDonald said.

First-year law student Ben Machlis said the best way for students to make a difference in this important issue is to get informed and vote.

“It’s amazing how many of us are in that 18-to-25 demographic and have strong opinions, and how few of us use (voting)-the easiest tool to get our voices heard,” Machlis said.