ON-Lion Letter
The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of American civil-rights legislation.  Its passage marked the death knell of the Jim Crow South.  But that was the beginning, not the end, of an important debate on race and representation in American democracy. 

The Voting Rights Act's original aim was simple:  give African Americans the same political opportunity enjoyed by other citizens -- the chance to vote, form political coalitions, and elect the candidates of their choice.  Bradley Prize recipient Abigail Thernstrom's new book from AEI Press, Voting Rights -- and Wrongs:  The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections, argues that southern resistance to black political power began a process by which the act was radically revised, both for good and ill.

After the act, Thernstrom tells in Voting Rights -- and Wrongs, it soon became clear that access to the ballot in the South would not, by itself, provide the political opportunity the statute promised.  Congress, the courts, and the U.S. Justice Department altered the statute to ensure the election of blacks and Hispanics to legislative bodies ranging from school boards and county councils to Congress.  Proportional racial representation -- equality of results rather than mere equal opportunity -- became the revised aim of the act. 

Majority-minority districts that reserved seats for blacks and Hispanics succeeded in integrating southern politics.  Now, however, those districts may perversely limit the potential power of black officeholders, Thernstrom says.  Such race-conscious districting discourages the development of centrist, "post-racial" candidates like Barack Obama (who was defeated when he stood for Congress in one such district).

The Voting Rights Act has become a period piece that today serves to keep most black legislators clustered on the sidelines of American politics -- precisely the opposite of what it intended, she concludes.  A radically revised law would better serve the political interests of all Americans -- minority and white voters alike.

Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a member of the board of advisers of the United States Election Assistance Commission.  The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee substantially supports AEI.
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