The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s ‘Back to the Future’ voting registration debate

Civil rights Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) speaks at an event in Washington in July celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
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It seems so “Back to the Future.”

For several years, Virginia’s Republican politicians and some Democrats have been raising the specter of massive voting fraud that needs to be corrected by tougher voter-identification requirements.

The fears are centered upon undocumented aliens somehow gaming the voter-registration system so they can twist elections in their favor.

An even more frightening reason is to push African Americans living in Virginia and several other Southern states back to where they were before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected them from abusive vetting tactics when they tried to register to vote.

There is no evidence of large-scale voter registration fraud, but that hasn’t stopped some Virginia Republicans from nitpicking small items on changes in the voter registration form.

These involve allowing registrants to skip checking boxes stating that they are U.S. citizens or are not convicted felons who don’t meet voting eligibility requirements. Efforts to address the changes have been delayed by the State Board of Elections.

Those changes are important to the GOP because Virginia in the last two elections has gone Democratic in the presidential vote. All top executives in the state are Democrats. That means a lot now that Virginia is shaping up as a key swing state in the 2016 election. It also will mean a lot in state elections this November.

One might wish that voter-education issues had been resolved years ago. But that, sadly, is not the case. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act that required federal supervision of Virginia and some other states if they proposed changing registration rules.

The decision stated that Congress did not consider progress toward racial equality when it singled out some states for extra supervision. This provided a big opening for conservatives to bring back disenfranchisement efforts that might have gone away with segregation.

Not so, unfortunately. And, the issue is raising its head again on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a highly successful legal remedy for fair voting. It oddly comes as a set of unrelated circumstances has forced a national reassessment of the Confederate flag and other symbols of white supremacy.

One of the best summations of the current problem is in a July 29 cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Titled “A Dream Undone,” the article shows how bad things were in the South in the 1950s, how they got better in the 1960s and how rights have been chipped away ever since, thanks to a concerted, fear-based campaign by conservative operatives to turn back the clock.

The story tells of how in 1956, Henry Frye, a 24-year-old African American and former Air Force officer with service in Korea, confronted convoluted questions when he tried to register to vote in his home state of North Carolina.

Frye managed on his second try by shaming officials to turn him away when he was an obviously intelligent and literate military officer. He ended up becoming the first black graduate of the University of North Carolina Law School and the state’s first black chief justice.

Today, in Virginia as elsewhere, the very same types of obstacles are being brought back to life by fear-mongering political operatives skillful at spin and the social media. The scandals they conjure up somehow don’t exist.

Maybe it’s time to call back the feds to supervise.

Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local.