Born from bloodshed in March 1965, when six hundred black protestors marching for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama, were set upon by state troopers wielding clubs and tear gas, the Voting Rights Act was, as President Lyndon B. Johnson declared at the time, “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.” Unfortunately, in the four decades since its passage, amendments and legal developments have made this once simple law muddled and contradictory, far removed from its original purpose of ending voting barriers for millions of African Americans.
In The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Edward Blum draws on public records, press accounts, and extensive personal interviews with state and local officials and others involved in politics at the grassroots level to highlight the real-world consequences of Section 5. Anecdotal accounts of the difficulties local governments in four jurisdictions have encountered in implementing the act reveal the transformation of the act from a law designed to protect individuals’ right to vote to a gerrymandering tool used to further the electoral prospects of incumbent politicians of all races. Blum concludes that Section 5, as it has been implemented, has become not only silly and expensive, but pernicious as well.
Why did Congress renew Section 5 in 2006, and why did President George W. Bush enthusiastically sign it into law? Blum offers an unsettling perspective on Lyndon Johnson’s proudest legislative achievement, describing its degeneration into an unworkable, unfair, and arguably unconstitutional mandate which is bad for the body politic and race relations in America.
Edward Blum is a visiting fellow at AEI.