Resolution to Reaffirm Commitment to Voting Rights Act
Adopted by the General Assembly November 9, 2005
The General Assembly of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA adopted a Human Rights Policy Statement on December 6, 1961, setting forth general principles related to the inherent worth, rights and responsibilities of all persons. In the section entitled "Political and Civic Rights” the statement recognizes:
"The right to full participation of the person in political and civic life, including the opportunity: to vote by secret ballot…”
This policy statement predated the enactment of voting rights legislation adopted in 1965. The General Board of the National Council of Churches adopted a new human rights policy statementon November 17, 1995. The statement acknowledges extensive changes in our society since the adoption of a human rights policy in 1963.
The 1995 statement shared theological and biblical understandings based on our Christian tradition. "Human rights are not simply granted by human authorities. Human rights are inherent for humankind, fashioned in the image of God”. Human rights involve the relationships of individual, groups and social structures. The Christian faith affirms the belief in these rights and in the corresponding responsibility of men and women to exercise their rights.
The 1995 policy statement reads in part:
"Racial and ethnic communities continue to be victimized by racism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism. These conditions are exacerbated by voluntary and forced migration, human enslavement, political realignments and the shifting of geographical boundaries. The Church must stand with these communities as they assert their right to full acceptance and citizenship, guarantees of and protection of human rights on an equal basis with other persons in the society, and recognition of their unique worth.”
We believe that the right to vote is a basic human right, therefore as the Voting Rights Act comes up for reauthorization in 2007, the National Council of Churches must be on record in strong support of this legislation. The right to vote is perhaps the single most important right in a democratic society. Recent history verifies that voting discrimination against minority populations continues and therefore that federal oversight of state and local voting functions remains an imperative in jurisdictions with patterns of voting discrimination.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted 40 years ago. Congress hails the VRA as the nation's most effective civil rights legislation. The VRA was amended in 1970, 1975, and 1982. The VRA was adopted at a time when African Americans were substantially disfranchised in many Southern states. It has now also removed barriers to voting for Asians, Latino Americans and Native Americans and for persons with disabilities.
The Act employed measures to restore the right to vote that intruded in matters previously reserved to the individual states. Section 4 ended the use of literacy requirements for voting in six Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia) and in many counties of North Carolina, where voter registration or turnout in the 1964 presidential election was less than 50 percent of the voting-age population.
Under the terms of Section 5 of the Act, no voting changes were legally enforceable in these jurisdictions until approved either by a three-judge court in the District of Columbia or by the Attorney General of the United States. Other sections authorized the Attorney General to appoint federal voting examiners who could be sent into covered jurisdictions to ensure that legally qualified persons were free to register for federal, state, and local elections, or to assign federal observers to oversee the conduct of elections.
Although the voting protections of the Fifteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act are permanent, the special provisions of Section 5 remains in effect only through 2007. Section 5 makes it mandatory for election practices that change boundaries or impose new procedures in certain states to be subjected to administrative review by the United States Attorney General, or ruled on by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia before implementation. The NCC believes it will be a travesty of justice to allow these special provisions to expire.
Prior to the Civil War, African Americans were almost totally disenfranchised throughout the states. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1870, gave all men, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment ratified in 1920, provided women the right to vote.
Even after the enactment of the 15th amendment, many southern states continued to use various methods to prevent people of color from voting, including literacy tests, poll taxes, the disenfranchisement of former inmates, intimidation, threats, and even violence. Until 1965, federal laws did not challenge the authority of states and localities to establish and administer their own voting requirements.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to address these issues. It prohibits discrimination based on race or language minority status. The VRA enables millions of minorities to register and vote despite some states' efforts to limit the exercise of their right. These key "special provisions” of the VRA have a remedial purpose and are set to expire on August 6, 2007.
Section 2 of the Act, which bars the use of voting practices or procedures that discriminate against members of such protected classes, has been used successfully to attack restrictive voter registration requirements and the location of polling places at sites inaccessible to minority voters.
Section 5 of the Act requires federal "pre-clearance” before covered jurisdictions (i.e., specified jurisdictions with a history of practices that restrict minority voting rights) may make changes in existing voting practices or procedures. The Act also provides the Department of Justice with the authority to appoint federal observers and examiners to monitor elections to ensure that they are conducted fairly. Initial enforcement efforts targeted, among other things, literacy tests, poll taxes, and discriminatory registration practices.
In 1975, the Voting Rights Act was amended to address the voting rights of language minorities. ." Sections 4 and 203 of the Act apply in jurisdictions with significant numbers of voters with limited or no English proficiency and require such jurisdictions to provide voting materials and assistance in relevant languages in addition to English. These provisions now apply to non- southern states as well because of the increasing diversity in our society.
The VRA was amended in 1982. The amendments make clear that it is unnecessary to prove that certain registration and voting practices have been established with discriminatory intent. Instead, section 2 is violated if a court concludes that a voting practice has the effect of limiting the electoral influence of minorities, even if not motivated by bias. A second 1982 amendment allows for people who are blind, disabled, or illiterate to be assisted in voting by almost anyone of their choice.
Many Americans are not aware of the history of the VRA and therefore may assume there is no longer a need to have the protection afforded by the special provisions of the Act. Despite the progress that has been made since the enactment of the VRA of 1965, voter inequities, disparities, and obstacles still remain for many voters and serve to demonstrate the ongoing need for the VRA and its special provisions. Gerrymandering, improper redistricting, disenfranchising former inmates, inaccessible voting booths and flawed voting procedures are issues that must continued to be addressed to ensure the protection of the right to vote for all Americans.
Therefore, be it resolved that the Governing Board of the NCC recommends to the General Assembly the following actions:
- Begin work on the VRA in 2005 to highlight its importance prior to election season.
- Call upon member communions and ecumenical partners to work both individually and collaboratively to insure an awareness of the need for the Voting Rights Act and its special provisions to be extended permanently.
- Maintain involvement in voter registration and get-out-the vote efforts.
- Allocate appropriate funding to assist the Justice and Advocacy Commission to gather and disseminate appropriate educational materials on the issue of the voting rights act, and empower the commission to work for the creation and adoption of legislation to make all the qualities of the Voting Rights Act permanent.
- Make reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act a council-wide priority for 2006-7.
- Change the dates of future General Assemblies to avoid conflict with Election Day.
Human Rights: The Fulfillment of Life in the Social Order, November 17, 1995
Equal Representation Is a Right of Citizenship adopted by the General Board, June 3, 1965
Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly, December 6, 1963
The Right to Vote, February 23, 1961