South seeks new status in Voting Rights Act

Debate on Hill exposes a sharp racial split in the region.

Matters of race still roil the South, but any more than in the rest of America? And when it comes to ballot access for minorities, do Southern states still deserve to be singled out for federal oversight – 41 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act became the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement?

On the way to renewing the Voting Rights Act this week, the House was forced by a group of Republican congressmen – primarily from the South – to consider those questions, touching off a rousing debate over whether the region is ready for electoral emancipation.

"It's a question of, how long does someone or some state get punished for past sins?" says David Domke, a political communications professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Today, there is a pretty good argument made by Southerners that there should at least be a decrease in the amount of [federal] oversight" of elections.

The debate in the public square that preceded the House's vote on Thursday shows how emotionally charged the issue remains. Here in Georgia – where white congressional representatives have taken the lead in arguing for a softened Voting Rights Act (VRA) and black representatives have defended the need for oversight – positions gelled along the familiar racial and party lines.

The amendment in question – intended to make it easier for 837 counties, mostly in the South, to exit federal receivership and regain control of their elections – was not expected to pass. The vote came after the Monitor went to press.

But the Senate has yet to take up the VRA, and some senators have said they feel sympathetic toward the view that the former slave-holding states deserve to know how they can win redemption.

Those who argue for amending the VRA say the changes it wrought are now steeped in Southern culture. The region, despite widespread social segregation, has in many ways come to terms with its past – exemplified by political opportunity for all, they say.

"One problem is, how do you come up with evidence of [racial injustice] when the VRA has been such a good deterrent?" says Richard L. Hasen, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who had a hand in crafting the amendment put forward by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) of Georgia.

The House also considered other VRA amendments. One would expand the law's purview from 16 states to all 50. Another called for revisiting the law in 10 years instead of 25. But the most hotly contested was the bid to soften Section 5 of the law, which requires counties under federal supervision to submit all election changes – as small as the number of ballot boxes – to the US Justice Department.

The Westmoreland amendment required that Justice compile a list of counties with clean records that would get an automatic "bailout" from the law. Only 11 counties, all in northern Virginia, have gained bailout since 1965.

To many, especially Southern blacks who remember the days of Jim Crow, watering down the act could result in an eventual slide toward tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests intended to marginalize the black vote.

Rep. David Scott (D), whose 13th District abuts Representative Westmoreland's in the Atlanta suburbs, rattles off a long list of unresolved injustices, from the days of disfranchisement to Jim Crow-era "whippings and lynchings" at the hands of whites. Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia has branded Westmoreland and fellow Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood "saboteurs," saying they aren't taking into account the feelings of African-Americans, who make up about one-third of Georgia's population.

Representative Scott says racial progress has come not from white Southerners, but from the act itself. Since the law was renewed last in 1982, Georgia has had 91 VRA violations, including a 1992 effort by Effingham County, outside Savannah, to remove the vice-chairman slot on its county board – a post that had been held for five years by a black commissioner.

More proof, Scott says, is Georgia's controversial Voter ID law, which a federal judge on Wednesday ruled unconstitutional. "Georgia is a poster child for why we still need the VRA," says Scott.

Proponents of the Westmoreland change say Georgia shows how much progress has been made. Today, it has more than 600 black elected officials, a number surpassed only in Mississippi. There were three in 1964. The percentage of blacks who turn out to vote is regularly higher than the percentage of whites. Two black House members, including Scott, are elected from majority-white districts.

"We do not believe we should wear a scarlet letter forever," says Brian Robinson, Westmoreland's press secretary. "All we're saying is that we're being treated differently even though there's no record to say we are different. We want the law to reflect today's reality as opposed to the 1960s."

Loyola's Mr. Hasen, for his part, says the law is necessary in a country still battling racial inequities. His support of the Westmoreland measure, he says, is motivated by a desire to protect the VRA from the new Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts. Some legal analysts predict that the Roberts court would be less likely than the former Rehnquist court to uphold Section 5 unless there's compelling evidence that specific counties are engaging in disfranchisement.

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