GOP will be friendly to Voting Rights Act

LAWRENCEVILLE - Rampant rumors that congressional Republicans are itching to repeal the Voting Rights Act were largely responsible for the thousands of marchers who traveled to Atlanta last month to celebrate the landmark law's 40th anniversary.

But don't believe it.

In fact, although the deadline for Congress to reauthorize important portions of the law doesn't arrive until 2007, a House committee is planning to hold hearings and take up reauthorization legislation after lawmakers return this week from the August recess.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said recently he also expects the Senate to address the issue this fall.

The Voting Rights Act was shepherded through a Democratic Congress in 1965 by a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson.

In the decades since, it undoubtedly has contributed greatly to the election of black candidates to public office, the vast majority of whom have been Democrats.

So why are Republican leaders so anxious to keep it? Because it's helped the GOP more.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, gives the law a large share of the credit for the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

"The Voting Rights Act has turned out to be an enormous boon for the Republican Party," he said.

The reason the law has boosted Republican fortunes, and why GOP leaders don't dare tamper with it, lies in Section 5 of the act, one of the portions up for reauthorization.

Section 5 requires nine states - including Georgia - and portions of seven other states, all with a history of racial discrimination, to submit any changes they make in election laws to the federal government.

That's why the Justice Department gave its blessing last month to Georgia's new law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.

Every congressional or legislative redistricting plan approved by the General Assembly also has to be run by the feds, as do maps drawn up by federal judges when lawmakers can't reach an agreement.

"The way it's been interpreted by the courts and in the legislatures, and rightly so, is you have to create an African-American majority district every time the population figures allow for that," Sabato said.

But drawing so-called "majority-minority" districts at every opportunity invariably leads to what has come to be known in political circles as "bleaching," the creation of heavily white districts in surrounding areas.

"Packing black voters into particular districts allows Republicans to win elsewhere ... because two-thirds of white voters vote Republican," said David Bositis, a senior research associate with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focusing on issues of concern to minorities.

Bositis said congressional Republican leaders also have image concerns that will prevent them from seriously considering any changes to the Voting Rights Act.

"There's a PR aspect to it," he said. "They don't want to be labeled as opposed to the Voting Rights Act."

There are some Republicans who don't buy into that line of reasoning.

Freshman Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Grantville sees the singling out of Georgia and the other states that come under Section 5 as unfair and would like to see the provision repealed.

Brian Robinson, Westmoreland's spokesman, points to results from recent elections as evidence that Georgia voters have become more open to black candidates and, thus, don't need the federal government looking over their shoulders.

Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, both black, were elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2002.

Two black congressmen - Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, and David Scott, D-Atlanta, represent majority-white districts.

"The idea that Georgia is less color-blind than states that are not covered (by Section 5) is ludicrous," Robinson said.

But Bositis said there aren't enough Republicans with Westmoreland's sentiments to pose any threat to reauthorizing the act.

"The leadership would probably like those people to stay in the background," he said.

Dave Williams is a Gwinnett Daily Post staff writer. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.