Emil Guillermo: So many Republican candidates, but do they want the Voting Rights Act to help us vote for them?

August 7, 2015 10:01 AM

At the first GOP debate, as Republicans flooded the stage with presidential candidates on both the varsity and JV level, I didn't hear a thing about one very important topic.


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Did anyone even mention the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act? 

This, of course, is what often is referred to as the "crown jewel" of America's civil rights movement, the very thing worth fighting for in a democracy. 

All of the rolling celebrations of 50th anniversaries have been leading toward this pinnacle of racial equality. 

In this blogumn (my term for this hybrid communique), we've commemorated MLK's march on Washington in 2013 and the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 2014. And this year, there was the anniversary of the Selma march, which led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act. 

Big deal, right? 

You probably didn't hear much in the media about President Obama's event on Thursday at the White House with advocates and community groups, when he acknowledged how the real gains of our right to vote are eroding. 

"There are still too many ways in which people are discouraged from voting," President Obama said to the crowd in the South Court Auditorium of the White House. "Some of the protections that had been enshrined in the Voting Rights Act itself have been weakened as a consequence of court decisions and interpretations of the law. State legislatures have instituted procedures and practices that, although on the surface may appear neutral, have the effect of discouraging people from voting, may have a disproportional effect on certain kinds of folks voting." 


The President continued: "And if, in fact, those practices, those trends, those tendencies are allowed to continue unanswered, then over time the hard-won battles of 50 years ago erode, and our democracy erodes. And that means that the decisions that are made in the corridors of power all across this country begin to reflect the interests of the few, instead of the interests of the many. So we've got serious business to attend to here. One order of business is for our Congress to pass an updated version of the Voting Rights Act that would correct some of the problems that have arisen."

He was talking about restoring Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires areas with a history of discrimination (not all in the South) to have any voting changes "precleared" or approved by the U.S. Attorney General before they take effect. 

There's also the little known Section 203, which provides for translated ballots and voting materials for voters with limited English proficiency. 

The president drew applause where he spoke, but I wonder what kind of applause he would have drawn at the GOP debate in Cleveland. 

I didn't hear one mention of the Voting Rights Act, and I tried to do the GOP debate in an empathetic way, as a non-partisan. 

I was even trying to adopt a Republican principle. 

I was colorblind, listening to Fox News on Sirius XM while stuck in west coast commute traffic.

Ben Carson could have been Johnny Carson to me. 

And he was for a moment. After one question in the first five minutes, he wasn't heard from again for about 50 minutes, when he got a laugh responding to a question on waterboarding: "Well, thank you, Megyn [Kelly of Fox News], I wasn't sure I was going to get to talk again."

And that, I thought, was the problem of the debate. Candidates disappeared. There were just too many of them. 

But I'm sure that wasn't what the president was referring to when he said, "there are too many ways in which people are discouraged from voting."

No, the president was referring specifically to voter ID laws or rolling back early voting, things that make it harder for people to vote.

"How can you rationalize making it harder for people to vote?" Obama asked. "How can you rationalize penalizing people because they don't have a lot of money not being able to vote? That's contrary to who we are. That's not what we believe. That's not what John Lewis fought for. In the United States of America, we should have no patience and no tolerance for laws that aim at disenfranchising our fellow citizens."

I kept thinking about that as I listened to the big boy GOP debate, where Trump eviscerated Rosie O'Donnell and made her a saint. Where moderator Chris Wallace was far from moderate when he kept insisting on using the word "Illegal" to describe the undocumented. Where Trump was asked to provide proof to back up his statements that the Mexican government was sending criminals, "rapists and drug dealers" across the border. 

Trump couldn't do it.

He should've just channeled the cherished line from that Humphrey Bogart film, "Treasure of Sierra Madre." Trump should have looked into the camera and said, "Badges, I ain't got to show you no stinking badges."

Now that would have won points with me. 

Instead, Trump exposed himself as evasive. He started by declining to pledge not to run as an independent if he lost. Later, he declared, "the big problem this country has is being politically correct." 

Spoken like a true white billionaire. 

As I listened, there were few sparks for me.

Some will talk about Mike Huckabee as a winner. But he scared me when the wanna-be-Commander-in-Chief said: "The purpose of the military is [to] kill people and break things." 

Marco Rubio scored early when he took on Amazon and the digital revolution, and the disruption to the non-tech middle class.

"If I'm the nominee," Rubio said. "We will be the party of the future."

And then he practically disappeared from the debate. 

John Kasich actually scored for me when the snarky Fox folks tried to get him on big government. He stood up for Ohio's health care for drug dealers and the mentally ill, and for Medicaid expansion. 

And when they came back and tried to get him on same-sex marriage, he mentioned he has been to a gay wedding. Next debate, I expect to see him do his Caitlin imitation.

Then there was Dr. Carson, who said that unlike the others, he has separated Siamese twins. But would he be able to separate politicians from their high donors? 

All that and not one mention of the historic signing of Voting Rights Act 50 years ago. No one talked about the right to franchise so that Asian Americans like Mallika Das might vote for them.

Das is a registered voter in Texas who last year tried to vote but was denied the language assistance she deserved because her designated interpreter, her son, was registered in an adjacent county.

It's the basis of a lawsuit that AALDEF has filed, citing a violation of the Voting Rights Act. 

So while the republicans were inadvertently discouraging voters through their words, I kept thinking of how Das has to fight for her right to vote for them--or not.

I doubt the GOP candidates were even thinking about Mallika Das and other Asian American voters like her. Not if they didn't even bother to mention an important foundation of our modern democracy, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. 
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.