The email started as a well-intentioned campaign to inform black voters about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it turned into a cruel rumor that is being spread like "wildfire" over the Internet, according to government officials.
Email messages are circulating around the Web saying the hard-earned right to vote enjoyed by black Americans will expire in 2007.
Federal voting rights officials said the rumor is inaccurate, and is a sensational spin on what is actually a bit of true information. In response, the government is using the Internet to launch its own campaign to correct the rumor.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was put in place at a time when for decades in some areas in the South blacks had not been permitted to vote. Those who attempted to register to vote or to organize or assist others to attempt to register to vote risked losing their jobs, their homes, and even their lives.
According to the Justice Department, which has posted a statement addressing the rumor, to combat the extreme situations in the South, Congress included in the act special provisions containing extraordinary remedies that applied in certain areas of the nation for a limited time period.
For example, under these provisions the U.S. Attorney General was given the authority to send federal examiners to register voters in counties where the local registrar refused to register black voters. The attorney general also was authorized to send observers to monitor elections to ensure that black voters were allowed to vote and that their votes were counted.
These special provisions, as well as a few others, were intended to be for limited durations and were scheduled to expire in 1970, but they were extended that year, and again in 1975 and 1982. They are now set to expire in 2007, if not further extended, according to the DOJ.
The office of Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), which has been contacted by confused constituents inquiring about the rumor, said a few well-intentioned blacks actually have perpetuated the problem by misinterpreting the provisions in the act.
According to Clyburn's office, the originator of the misinformation confused the Voting Rights Act and the 15th Amendment which, like all amendments to the U.S. Constitution, requires the mandatory ratification of three-fourths, or 38, of the states.
An email Clyburn actually received with the rumor states, "In 2007, Congress will decide whether or not blacks should retain the right to vote. In order for this to be passed, 38 states will have to approve the extension."
Another point of misinformation being distributed in the email sent to Clyburn states: "Remember: Blacks are the only group of people who require permission under the United States Constitution to vote!"
Again, this is wrong. There are three constitutional amendments protecting the right to vote for women and voters who are 18 years old.
"The confusion over the issue has been going on for some time now, about a year, but it has picked up over the past couple of days," a spokesperson from Clyburn's office said.