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December 20, 2000

"[The black man has] no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

The state of minority voting rights in America is a mess and I see a direct line between the debacle of this year and the shameful Dred Scott decision. The Supreme Court wrote that infamous line in its 1857 Dred Scott case which ruled that blacks could not be citizens of the United States of America. And from that decision, through Plessy versus Ferguson in 1896, which struck down a federal law passed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, black people in this country have known that the Supreme Court can, at its worst, become a reflection of the particular mutation of racism of the day.

But the record of enfranchisement of blacks during the years of the Warren Court (1953 to 1969) also shows that the Members of the Supreme Court can rise above accepted practices of the day to move America toward its full promise.

Fortunately, the Warren Court, buttressed by like-minded leaders in the Executive and Legislative Branches, was able to begin the transformation of American life. The Warren Court overturned the Supreme Courtšs mistakes of the previous century and ushered America into the Twentieth Century. School desegregation; One Person, One Vote; and desegregation of public accommodations were the hallmark of the Modern Civil Rights Era punctuated by the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. However, as soon as the Warren Years were over, the Supreme Court lurched backwards with an aim to obliterate the progress made during the years of the Warren Court.

And so we find ourselves today in a serious retrenchment on our countryšs commitment to mainstreaming into American life its former slaves. Affirmative action has been decimated and the Voting Rights Act has been bludgeoned, with its enforcement section due to expire in less than a decade, and the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice severely hampered. But no one, Išm certain, no one ever thought that the kind of voter suppression witnessed in the Year 2000 Presidential elections would ever be revisited upon Americašs minorities.

We should not be surprised by any decision of todayšs partisan, political, Republican, hand-picked Supreme Court. As ignominious as the Plessy decision was, current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist, as a young law clerk wrote at the time of the Brown versus Board of Education decision: "I think Plessy v. Ferguson, the legal foundation for mandatory racial segregation, was right and should be reaffirmed."

If I had to give a State of the State of the Minority Vote Today, I would say that disfranchisement, not enfranchisement, is the order of the day. And herešs why I say that:

First of all, in 1978, the Burger Supreme Court turned the Fourteenth Amendment sideways by outlawing the use of racial quotas implemented for the purpose of including minorities in Americašs life. A few years later, the Rehnquist Court would stand the Fourteenth Amendment on its head by issuing a startling decision in Shaw v. Reno that completely changed the political map for Americašs minorities.

That is when I learned the hard way that Supreme Court justices, like other participants in our judiciary, are political actors first and foremost. Because I saw them in action in Johnson v. Miller, Georgiašs redistricting case, that dismantled my district and paved the way so that other black voters across the South could receive similar mistreatment.

The Voting Rights Act was passed to prohibit impediments to voting. In those days that meant literacy tests, poll taxes, and direct threats and intimidation. It also covered redistricting, dual voter lists, location of polling places, and eventually, voter registration, and purging of names from the voter list. However, innovation has never been lacking among those who want to suppress and deny minority voting rights. It can come in many forms. And as we have seen in the debacle of the Year 2000 Presidential Elections, especially in Florida, that minority voter suppression comes in many forms.

Having white police blockade the entrance to a precinct and refuse to allow free access for the voters because of an erroneous belief that the Congresswoman hadnšt supported their pay raise is unfortunate, but even worse, is unconscionable disrespect for the people who were trying to exercise their right to vote. That happened at one precinct in my district.

Having to stand hours in long lines is bad enough. But having to stand in line, sometimes outside in the rain, in some cases for as many as five hours is outrageous and unconscionable and shouldnšt be tolerated anywhere. But that happened at many of my precincts in my district.

Standing in line for hours, only to reach the table and be told that you are not at the correct voting place and therešs no time to get to the correct place, therefore you wonšt be able to vote, Sorry, is inexcusable. But that happened over and over and over again in my district.

And having overcrowded voting precincts when more spacious accommodations were just next door is insulting to black taxpayers, especially when those same precincts have poorly trained and too few elections personnel, equipment, and only one voter list.

Adding insult to injury are the reports that people were actually encouraged to leave rather than to wait and vote once 7:00 arrived, although they had been in line well before 7:00.

In the majority black precincts of my district it seems that there was planned chaos. Interestingly, we have Democrats in charge of our County, but the public purse is controlled by four white women, both Democrat and Republican who vote together to deny funds to allow a smooth voting process for the areas of the County now experiencing tremendous population growth. It shouldnšt be surprising that that population growth is nearly all black. What makes this failure on the part of our governing body to appropriate the necessary funds to accommodate our new voters is that we had this same scenario in 1996, a Presidential election year, but also the year in which I faced reelection in a majority white district with well-financed white Democratic and Republican opposition. It was an overwhelming black turnout that returned me to Congress despite the new district and in the process the County elected its first black sheriff and superior court Clerk. They immediately voted to give the black newspaper the legal organ designation and a change in the County was evident. There should not have been a repeat of the chaos this year.

But there was.
I would suggest that perhaps the leaders responsible for appropriating funds for DeKalb County donšt want large voter participation from the black residents on its south side. Thatšs the only way I can explain the failure to fund adequately the elections office for the past four years.

I would posit to you that this is a subtle violation of the Voting Rights Act with the intent and effect of suppressing the minority vote.

Additionally, why should people who have served their time and paid their debt to society be permanently disfranchised from Americašs body politic? Even President Clinton acknowledges that America needs to reexamine its prison policies. That reexamination should include the fact that fourteen states bar criminal offenders form voting even after they have finished their sentences. Once these people have returned to society, become good mothers and fathers, have jobs and are taxpayers, why should they not be allowed to vote? And because of the disproportionate impact of racism in this country, blacks and Latinos bear a disproportionate share of the burden of the loss of the right to vote. If Canada and other countries can take affirmative action to register former prisoner and bring them into full citizenship, then so can America.

I have cosponsored and plan to sponsor legislation having this effect on the federal level.

Additionally, our entire electoral system should be reformed to make our institutions more reflective of Americašs voters. I have authored in each of the past three Congresses the Voters Choice Act which allows the states to adopt proportional voting schemes that help minority voices be heard in the political spectrum without hurting the rights of others. It is proportional representation in the Republic of South Africa that allows the Afrikaaner parties to have representation in the South African Parliament despite majority rule.

In addition, campaign finance reform must become more than a slogan, but law if we are to really give voters a choice in candidates. Right now, the special interests select the candidates before we even get to vote, so our choices as voters are severely limited due to the influence of special interest political money.

Finally, America is increasingly becoming a country of people of color. We know that southern resistance to minority gains of the Civil Rights Era never ended. The Georgia State flag reminds us of that every day. But as America becomes a country of color we have seen southern resistance spread across our land.

We must remain vigilant. Any policy that has the effect of suppressing or diluting the votes of people of color is not sustainable and is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

We have severe problems facing us today. A black boy born in Harlem has less chance of reaching age 65 than a boy born in Bangladesh. Twenty-six black men have been executed this year. And too many black men have been relegated to the streets, underpasses, and heating grates of Americašs urban cities.

It is only through the vote that we will be able to change the conditions in our community and to right the multitudinous wrongs that have been foisted upon our condition. We have the power to change the status quo and our opponents know that well. Thatšs why the practice of minority voter suppression is alive and well. However, until now, we didnšt realize the power that we have.

The Emperor is naked now.

And as a result, the devious acts of minority voters suppression have been laid bare for the world to see. We have seen them too. I predict that the black electorate will never be the same. Just like white America, we now know that our votes count and as a result we will demand that our votes be counted.

    Cynthia McKinney
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