08 31 2014
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WASHINGTON—A school closes that once housed a polling place. For the next election, city officials send voters to a new site across the street. In Boston, no problem. In Atlanta, no problem provided the federal government grants permission.

Such has been the law for 40 years under the Voting Rights Act, which sought to end racist poll taxes and literacy tests by putting Southern states — then, without question, the worst offenders — on a shorter leash than most other places.

Now President Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and congressional leaders from both political parties are pushing to renew this requirement for 25 more years. Although it doesn't expire until 2007, continuation of Section 5 — the provision involving federal preclearance of voting laws — seems a foregone conclusion.

Still, a handful of Southern Republicans — particularly those from Georgia — are determined to mount a spirited dissent, though they realize it will probably be in vain.

"It's just a matter of feeling dissed when you know you've paid for your sins or the sins of your forefathers, and it wasn't even our party that did it," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.

Congress is just a few weeks into its hearings on the act's renewal, but most have involved a parade of witnesses who support extending the requirement and a small handful who don't. So Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican in his first congressional term, decided it's time for the other side to mobilize.

Earlier this month, Westmoreland called a meeting of several Southern Republicans whose states are subject to Section 5 approval. He shared with them some facts involving his state of Georgia.

First, Blacks there now turn out to vote at a higher rate than Whites, according to a study by two political scientists. Second, the state has little trouble electing minorities to office. Four of 13 members of the U.S. House are Black, as is Thurbert Baker, who was easily re-elected as the state's attorney general.

"I'm not going to deny there weren't problems," Westmoreland said. "But right now, if you look at those same communities where there were problems, those communities are controlled by minorities."

Ironically, the loudest voices for continuing Section 5 use the same primary argument as those who want to scrap it. They just insist the progress happened mostly because the Voting Rights Act was there at all. Take that away, they fear, and discrimination returns in force.

At a news conference this past week largely in response to Westmoreland's efforts, Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader, called Section 5 "the heart of the act." His Georgia Democratic colleagues agreed, with Rep. David Scott predicting a "full-frontal assault" by opponents.

"In an ideal world we would not need the Voting Rights Act, and in an ideal world we could apply Section 5 across the board without watering it down and making it ineffective," said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga. "But if history, both past and present, teaches us anything, it's that we do not live in an ideal world."

In just a few months as a congressman, this is the second time Westmoreland has led a chorus of few on an otherwise unpopular crusade. After Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, he voted against a $52 billion aide package that passed overwhelmingly, not convinced there was enough fiscal management.

"I think it takes some political courage to do what's right," Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland contends Congress should either scrap the Section 5 requirement altogether or make it apply to every state. Proponents say that idea is no better because it would dilute civil rights challenges and make the law far more likely to be overturned by the courts on the grounds the federal government is infringing on states' rights.

The representative said he is confident most Georgia Republicans are with him, including Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who acknowledges he has similar concerns. But some other Southern lawmakers, including two Republicans from neighboring Alabama, are torn.

Rep. Jo Bonner, from Mobile, Ala., said the Voting Rights Act shouldn't be eliminated if it means a return to the days of discrimination. Still, he said, there is inherent unfairness.

"You're applying a standard on the Southern states you're not applying elsewhere," Bonner said. "In Columbus, Ohio, you don't have to pre-clear when moving a voting precinct from a church in one part of town to another part of town. We do in Thomasville, Ala. It's not punishment, but it's added expense."

Actually, civil rights leaders even dispute that point. Officials say the cost of going through the hoops of Section 5 is less than 3 percent of what it takes to run an election, usually far less.

Under the Voting Rights Act, "retrogression" against minorities isn't allowed, but even 40 years later, there are various opinions on what exactly that means.

For most of that period, it was assumed an election change — such as redistricting, which Georgia has done twice in the last few years — couldn't dilute the ability of minorities to elect candidates they choose to office. But in the 2003 Supreme Court case Georgia vs. Ashcroft, the justices found such plans could be approved provided they still let Black voters influence an election.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who sits on the Judiciary Committee's Constitution panel, which is considering reauthorization, calls the retrogression standard a "mixed bag" that needs to be revamped.

"I'm going to try to find out if we could salvage Section 5 by bringing more clarity to it," Bachus said. "If we can't do that, I would just support letting it expire."

Supporters of reauthorization say it's fitting that the most vocal opposition is coming from Georgia, which recently had a federal court rule it couldn't enact a new law requiring voters without a driver's license to pay for a state-issued ID badge. Lewis equates the move to a poll tax, falling disproportionately on minorities, but the Justice Department cleared it.

The Georgia Republicans aren't claiming they have the votes in Congress to sink Section 5, but they insist they aren't afraid to try.

"That happens sometimes," Gingrey said. "You don't have much of a snowball's chance in hell of winning. You still feel like it's the right thing to do, so you strap on your helmet, go out there, and if you fail, you walk away with your pride."

— The Associated Press

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