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Is Massachusetts more racist than Mississippi, as Chief Justice Roberts hints?

In deciding whether to strike down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court is focusing on whether the South has redeemed its racist history. Massachusetts, though, has a quibble with Chief Justice Roberts.

By Staff writer / March 2, 2013

Assistant poll manager Kim Abenatha helps voters line up at the Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., on Election Day 2012.

Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

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Massachusetts officials came out swinging this week after Chief Justice John Roberts argued in a hearing on the constitutionality of a part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 that Mississippi may be more sensitive to black voting rights than Massachusetts.

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That's important because Mississippi, often derided as a backward backwater due to its ugly racial history, has to run any changes to its voting laws by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), while Massachusetts, broadly seen as a paragon of the enlightened North, does not.

The argument cuts to the bone of what's in front of the Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder: Should the South continue to be punished for its past racism despite evidence that those days are gone, or is there another, broader imperative that Section 5 protections are necessary to guarantee the franchise for all Americans?

Section 5 requires that nine states and many other jurisdictions, mostly in the South but also including parts of the Bronx (N.Y.), "pre-clear" voting law changes with the US Justice Department due to evidence of past disenfranchisement.

While Congress handily reauthorized the VRA in 2006 for another 25 years, conservative justices on the Supreme Court, including Chief Roberts, zeroed in this week on whether Section 5 has itself become discriminatory, since many indexes suggest that blacks vote at equal or even higher rates than whites in the covered jurisdictions.

Justice Roberts pointed out as proof that Massachusetts, for example, has "the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African-American voter turnout."

Claiming Roberts is obfuscating US Census data, Massachusetts voting officials shot back.

"The concept of black communities in Massachusetts not voting is an old slur, and it’s not true,” Secretary of State William Galvin said. “I guess the point [Roberts] is trying to make is Mississippi is doing so much better they don’t need the Voting Rights Act. He can still relay that conclusion, but he shouldn’t be using phony statistics. It’s deceptive, and it’s truly disturbing.”

As it is, Roberts is reading census figures that partially support his contention, but he failed to include margins of error that could, also technically, put Massachusetts ahead of Mississippi when it comes to minority participation versus white. Also, officials noted, several other states have similar disparities as Massachusetts. At the same time, three Section 5 jurisdictions – Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina – today have higher proportions of blacks voting than whites.

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