Devaluing Black Votes

DESPITE its rather stingy record on civil rights during the Reagan-Bush era, the Supreme Court has unwaveringly protected the voting rights of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. In particular, the high court has generously interpreted and strongly enforced the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Thus it's disappointing that the justices last week sent a message to whites in the South: You can't keep blacks from voting, but you can devalue their votes.

In two cases from Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that governments in historically segregated areas could reallocate powers away from black officeholders without the prior approval of the federal government. The court refused to apply Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires officials in nine Southern states and designated jurisdictions in seven other states to obtain federal approval for any new "standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting."

In both cases, black county commissioners were, as a result of government "reorganizations," stripped of commissioners' traditional control over street paving and maintenance in their districts - an important power in rural areas where many blacks still live along dirt roads.

In Russell County, Ala., soon after two blacks were elected to the county commission for the first time, the commission abolished separate road districts and gave road responsibilities to a county engineer appointed by the commission's white majority. In Etowah County, road maintenance funds previously distributed among the county commissioners were put into a common fund to be disbursed by majority vote; the change was challenged by two black commissioners elected several years later.

(It should be noted that in both counties, blacks were elected to the governing boards only after court-ordered redistricting.)

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Voting Rights Act's prior-approval requirement does not apply to local-government reorganizations like those being contested. Reallocation of authority among officials, said Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion, are not changes "with respect to voting," but rather with respect to "governance."

It's true that most practices challenged under the Voting Rights Act have related more directly to voting, such as procedures that inhibited blacks from registering or voting, or that diluted black voting power through gerrymanders and at-large districts. Even so, given all the circumstances of these two "reorganization" cases, it would not have been much of a stretch for the justices to find that the reshuffling effectively nullified black votes for commissioners.

If such blatantly evasive tactics are widespread in historically segregated communities, Congress should amend the Voting Rights Act to cover them.

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