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James Wright, Special NNPA, Afro-American Newspapers
Published: 21 January 2009

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Civil rights leaders and a leading scholar on Black politics said that if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of a case that challenges a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Blacks will encounter widespread discrimination in trying to assert their political rights.
The high court has agreed to hear the case of Northwest Austin Municipal District Utility No. 1 vs. Mukasey, which argues that a utility district located in Texas does not have a history of discrimination and, therefore, should not be subjected to the VRA's Section 5 preclearance requirements, a provision at the heart of the law.
The provision requires states or local governments with histories of racial discrimination to get federal approval before making any changes in election procedures.
If this case is supported by the court, it could spell trouble for voting rights for minorities, said Hilary Shelton, NAACP Washington Bureau chief.
"This case is important because what is at stake is the right of African Americans and other minorities to vote and participate in the political system without harassment," Shelton added. "Austin (Tex.) is well covered by the VRA and it should continue to be that way."
Texas is one of the states whose election laws and boundary changes must be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice before implementation. The law was designed to protect the voting rights of minorities.
In addition to Texas, states that are entirely covered by the provision are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In Virginia, all but 15 cities and counties must comply with the measure.
Parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota need permission to make voting changes.
Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said the legislation protects the rights of all Americans, not just people of color.
"This landmark civil rights legislation is essential in continuing to wholly protect the voting rights of all Americans," Arnwine said. "The preclearance requirements of Section 5 remain necessary to prevent discrimination intended to exclude and intimidate minority voters. The Lawyers' Committee remains in strong support of Section 5, which has stopped and deterred countless efforts of disenfranchisement over 40 years."
The utility district advocates have also argued that the election of Barack Obama as president has made the Voting Rights Act obsolete and that it should be declared unconstitutional. That would be a mistake, said Dr. David Bositis, senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"It's my suspicion that attempts to keep Blacks from voting will continue despite Obama being elected as president," Bositis said. "Southern conservatives opposed the VRA and will continue to do so because they don't have a commitment to see that Blacks exercise their voting rights."
Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, agreed with Bositis, saying that in many of the states covered by Section 5, Whites still voted along racial lines.
"In the nine southern states covered by Section 5, six went for McCain and the White vote was overwhelmingly for him," McDonald said. "Voting in those areas is still racially polarized. In fact, Obama did worse than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) did among Whites in 2004 in those areas.
"…attempts to keep Blacks from voting will continue despite Obama being elected as president."
In Alabama, McDonald said, Kerry won 19 percent of the White vote while Obama got only 10 percent. In Mississippi, Obama only got 11 percent of the White vote while Kerry got 14 percent, he pointed out.
The VRA was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and was extended in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006.
Soon after Congress extended the law, the Texas municipal utility district sued and argued it should be exempt from the law.
In May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the claims of the lawyers of the utility district that Section 5 of the VRA did not apply to their client and was unconstitutional. The three-judge panel said that the utility board didn't qualify as a "political subdivision" and could not be exempted from the law.
It also ruled that racial discrimination practices in voting still persist and that Congress acted appropriately when it extended the law.
Attorneys for the municipal utility appeal to the Supreme Court, calling the law "overly intrusive." One of the utility lawyers is Gregory Coleman, a former law clerk to Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
Arguments in the case will be heard in April and a decision rendered in June.
President Bush signed the extension into law in 2006 after Congressional hearings revealed that more than 2,400 proposed voting changes have been blocked since 1982. The Bush administration has joined with civil rights groups to keep the VRA.
"The record includes evidence of discrimination throughout the covered jurisdictions perpetrated at every level of government," the government's Supreme Court papers on the case said.
Jon Greenbaum, director of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Voting Rights Project said that Bush's support of the VRA is appropriate.
"They (Bush Justice Department) are doing their job," Greenbaum said. "They were silent during the reauthorization process but he did sign the bill. If you look at the act during its history, it has been Republican presidents who have signed its extension.
"Even Ronald Reagan [in 1982] signed for its extension and said some favorable things about it."
Bositis said the VRA has a strong legacy of positive results.
"During most of its history, it has promoted fair treatment of African-American voters," Bositis said. "It has permitted African Americans to hold political office in legislatures, city councils as well as the U.S. Congress. The law has been particularly effective when it has been enforced by the Justice Department and I feel that the Bush administration has not been enforcing it the way it should be."
Arnwine said the argument that Obama's election means that the VRA should be disbanded is troubling.
"There were some people in Virginia that said that when Douglas Wilder was elected governor in 1989 that everything was fine," she said. "We need to be careful that we are not swept away by the symbolism. We still need the VRA to move this country forward."
In another case accepted for argument by the high court and involving racial issue looks at whether a city can disregard the results of a civil service exam because it yielded too many qualified applicants of one race and not enough of another race. The court agreed to hear an appeal by 19 White firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter who had sued the city of New Haven, Conn., in 2004.

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