Voting Rights Fix Tests Civil Rights Movement's Strength

Advocates believe the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is threatened by voter ID laws.

Aug. 28, 2013— -- The same Voting Rights Act that grew partially from the March on Washington 50 years ago into one of the most successful civil rights-era laws has become a source of rancor, even straining the traditional coalition of Republicans and Democrats who have come together in favor of such vigilance.

Marking half a century since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King gave voice to the aspirations of millions of African-Americans across the country is bittersweet for civil rights activists in 2013.

"Within the civil rights movement, there is definitely a sense that there's a continued war on voting and we haven't made it to the mountain top yet," said Katherine Culliton-González, director of Voter Protection for the Advancement project.

"Here we are in 2013, at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and we're having to try to stop going backwards."

Watch the 50th Anniversary of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech LIVE Wednesday 11:30 a.m. ET with Social Soundtracker.

Blacks have never been closer than now to achieving King's dream, but there is also more political division than in decades about whether changes to voting rights laws in jurisdictions across the country constitute an affront to civil rights.

Combating election law changes they believe are discriminatory is at the top of the agenda of civil rights activists, but many of Republicans and Democrats who have historically come together to support continued federal vigilance over potentially discriminatory laws are divided.

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Many people want to laud the message of the civil rights movement 50 years ago, but there is a difference of opinion among some on whether it even still exists.

"I think the civil rights groups are in bad shape, by and large, because they can't acknowledge where we are right now," said Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative who is the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "They have to keep all this doom and gloom up."

And in the face of the same facts, proponents and opponents of voter ID laws and other provisions that change electoral laws reach different conclusions.

"You have to have some evidence of intent, of racist intent," Thernstrom said. "I don't think there is any."

Take North Carolina, where a slew of new voter laws --including a provision that requires voters to show a state-issued ID -- were signed into law. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the laws a reading of the "greatest hits of voter suppression" in an expansive speech on the threat of voter suppression laws.

But asked whether such laws could hurt minority participation in elections, North Carolina Republican National Committeewoman Ada Fisher said "absolutely not."

"The reason voter ID has been introduced is people want people who are from the state to vote, we want everybody to vote," Fisher, who is African-American, told ABC News. "We are not trying to disenfranchise people."

In many ways, the challenge the civil rights community faces is also a product of its success.

As Clinton lamented in her speech this month, "some take the historic success of the Voting Rights Act is a sign that discrimination is a thing of the past."

Thanks largely to the Voting Rights Act, gone are the days when lawmakers, particularly in the South, blatantly attempted to prevent black voters from getting to the polls with brazen and effective tools like poll taxes and literacy tests.

But proponents of changes to voting laws, mostly Republican, say that making changes to early voting, registration, and polling hours is rightfully within the purview of individual states. And requiring ID at the polling place is akin to requiring an ID to purchase alcohol.

When the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the voting rights act in Shelby County vs. Holder by ruling that that Congress would have to go back to the drawing board to update the formula that determines which jurisdictions have to "pre-clear" any voting law changes with the federal government, the response among lawmakers was muted among Republicans.

Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican, has emerged as the most outspoken and somewhat lonely advocate within his party of quickly restoring the "pre-clearance" portion of the voting rights act, even while his fellow Republicans remain largely silent.

"I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act as an effective tool to prevent racial discrimination, more subtle discrimination now than overt discrimination," Sensenbrenner said at a Republican National Committee Luncheon Monday to mark the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, a comment that earned him a standing ovation from the mostly African-American crowd (which was at least partial Democratic).

"The first thing we have to do is take out the monkey wrench that the Supreme Court threw at it."

Yet the court's ruling this spring has only emboldened states to move forward with changes to their laws that advocates believe are discriminatory and make it more difficult for minorities, young people and the poor to vote.

It didn't take long (only hours) for Texas to pledge that with the pre-clearance portion of the voting rights act struck down, it would move forward with voting law changes, which had previously been blocked by the Justice Department.

The Justice Department has since sued Texas to stop the voter ID law.

Making the challenge even greater, by striking down the "pre-clearance" portion of the Voting Rights Act, advocates are being forced to challenge laws in the expensive and time-consuming way: by suing in court.

"My biggest concern is that we have enough resources to be able to do it," Culliton-González of the Advancement Project said. "The Supreme Court took away really our most important tool in combating discriminatory practices.

"When you think about the resources on the other side," she added," they have good funding."