Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Debate on renewal of voting act heats up

By Don Schanche Jr.

Telegraph Staff Writer

For 40 years, Georgia and most of the South, plus a few other states, have lived under a law that says they may not change their voting procedures without first getting approval called "preclearance" from the federal government.

The requirement is in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed after civil rights workers were bloodied in Selma, Ala., as they challenged discriminatory laws that barred black people from the elections process.

But Section 5 and other special provisions of the Voting Rights Act will expire in 2007, unless Congress decides to renew them.

And already a debate is brewing over what Congress should do.

Civil rights activists are gathering testimony to show that racism still infects the election process, and the need for federal oversight remains.

"The persistence of racial bloc voting suggests to us we still need the remedy of the Voting Rights Act and the special provisions," said Debo Adegbile, associate director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Last week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson promised to hold a national march in Atlanta on Aug. 6 to fight for reauthorization of those provisions.

But others say that even if the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act were needed 40 years ago, the South and the nation have outgrown them.

"There's no evidence the conditions in the covered states still require preclearance. You can expect a wholesale revision of Section 5 to go before Congress," said Phil Kent of Atlanta, former president of the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation and one-time staffer for the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to put teeth in the constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. Parts of that law - such as Section 2, which prohibits discrimination in voting procedures - are permanent and apply nationwide.

But Section 5, along with other special provisions governing the use of federal election monitors and special bilingual ballots for language minorities, are temporary.

Congress has renewed and strengthened them several times, most recently with a 25-year renewal in 1982.

Section 5 applies in all or parts of 16 states. Although most of them are in the South, portions of New York, California, Michigan and New Hampshire also fall under the act.

One thing, at least, is indisputable: The Voting Rights Act has revolutionized Georgia and the South.

Before the act was passed, you could count all of Georgia's black elected officials on one hand. Today, the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials counts more than 700 members. Georgia's legislative black caucus is the largest in the nation.

Dozens of Georgia cities and counties have seen their election systems overhauled under the Voting Rights Act to give minorities a better chance to elect representatives of their choice.

State Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, said, "There's no doubt in my mind that we would not have these numbers had it not been for the Voting Rights Act. You take it from there down to mayor, city council, school board - just a whole range of elected offices - and compare it to 45 years ago, and immediately see the value of the Voting Rights Act."

But what about Section 5, and its application to a limited number of states?

As freshman U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, sees it, the special provisions should be extended to cover the entire nation or done away with altogether.

"I think the Section 5 part of it either needs to affect everybody or nobody," Westmoreland said.

It's a sentiment echoed by others who chafe under the stigma of being singled out.

"I'm old enough to remember being preached at by some very sanctimonious Northeastern folks about how much we needed to be overseen by them and others," said Rogers Wade, president of the nonpartisan, conservative-leaning Georgia Public Policy Foundation. "If those laws are still necessary, then they ought to be shared with the rest of the country. And if they want to renew it, it should be renewed for all 50 states. Because our record in the South is much better in nearly every respect than any other region in the country."

Laughlin McDonald, of the American Civil Liberties Union's southern regional office, said that argument is a smokescreen for killing Section 5.

"The problem with the nationwide (proposal) is that it would be almost impossible to administer Section 5 because there would be hundreds of thousands of these things," he said. "There would be no way the Department of Justice could administer Section 5."

Another problem, McDonald said: It would mean extending a legal remedy to places that never had a problem. And if Congress were do do that, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court very likely would strike down the law.

Former Thurmond staffer Kent pointed out that the act requires preclearance of even minor changes, such as moving a polling place, and that most changes are routinely precleared.

"It shows the Section 5 coverage is too broad, and it's an enormous waste of time and resources," Kent said.

Adegbile of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund said the value of the preclearance requirement lies partly in what it prevents.

"That procedure deters many jurisdictions from proposing voting changes that are discriminatory in the first place," he said. "When policy-makers know their work is going to be reviewed, he said, they are "less likely to do something that is intentionally discriminatory or has retrogressive effects."

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, said Georgia's recent General Assembly session provided evidence that preclearance is still essential. The state Legislature passed a law requiring voters to bring a photo ID to the polls. Republican supporters said it's aimed at stemming voter fraud. But Democrats and civil rights leaders protested that it will unduly hamper poor, black, elderly and rural voters. Under Section 5, the law won't go into effect until the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court approves it.

"It proves the point that the Voting Rights Act is critical, particularly to Southern states as far as these states moving the clock back," Brooks said.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, fought for the Voting Rights Act with his own blood. He was among the marchers who were clubbed in Selma in 1965. He still bears the scars.

"I think there's a need to renew Section 5," he said. "We've made a lot of progress, there have been a lot of changes. But there is still progress to be made. It's been 40 years, but I think we still need preclearance and the sections that will expire in 2007 so we will not be tempted to go back."

Lewis said that although President Bush hasn't indicated which course he favors, the president recently demonstrated a distressing lack of knowledge about the issue. It happened a few months ago when members of the Congressional Black Caucus were meeting with the president. One of the congressmen asked Bush if he favored extending Section 5.

"He said he didn't know enough about it to make a comment on it," Lewis recalled. "I think the members of the Congress couldn't believe it. Because the president had been the governor of Texas, and Texas is one of the states covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We all thought he should know something about the Voting Rights Act. ... It was unreal."

But Lewis said he is optimistic that the extension will find bipartisan support in Congress.

So is U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon.

"I would expect the next Congress will approve renewal of the Voting Rights Act without significant amendments," Marshall said. "Frankly, I'll be surprised if there's a big fight about this."

But Westmoreland said, "I think they'll either make Section 5 apply across the country or it'll be done away with, period."

Macon lawyer and conservative blogger Stephen Dillard said there's no question that Section 5 was needed 40 years ago.

But he asked, "How long do we maintain what the Department of Justice has referred to as 'extraordinary remedies'? ... What I would say is I think it's time for a lot of these provisions to go. You look at a town like Macon, the diversity at the local level, in terms of the types of people. You have men, women, white, black. You have the full spectrum of people from all sorts of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds who are now running the city and the county and the state and the country for that matter. Especially in the South. I think it's time to allow the new South to take hold. We are not the same South we used to be."

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