1965 Voting Rights Act renewal hits bump in road

Anxious to score political points in an election year, Republican congressional leaders were all set to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act late last month.

But that was before several members of Georgia's GOP House delegation - most of them backbenchers - convinced enough of their Republican colleagues to take a second look at the issue that the House leadership decided to delay the vote.

The law, a landmark of the Civil Rights Era, outlawed such discriminatory practices as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses that had been used to prevent blacks from voting.

To further ensure that voting rights were protected in the future, the legislation also included a provision requiring states or counties with a history of suppressing minority voter turnout to submit changes to their election laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for review.

With a track record of low voter registration and turnout among black voters, that "pre-clearance'' provision has come to be applied primarily to Georgia and other Southern states.

But to freshman U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville, and his allies, that was then and this is now.

They point to growing black voter registration and turnout and to the increasing number of black elected officials as proof positive that Georgia no longer warrants the special treatment of pre-clearance.

Examples abound. A huge turnout among black voters in 1998 was widely credited with high profile Democratic victories that included the election of Georgia's first black statewide officials, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.

Since then, both have been re-elected, and both the General Assembly and Georgia's congressional delegation have increased their black memberships.

With the Voting Rights Act up for reauthorization for 25 years, Westmoreland is calling for updating the law by basing the pre-clearance requirement on registration and turnout numbers from the three most recent presidential elections.

At the time the law was passed, statistics from the 1964 election were used to determine which states would be subject to pre-clearance. Later, the 1968 and 1972 elections were added.

"We've been under this for 42 years,'' Westmoreland said. "It's time to step back and look at it, put the same formula to today's elections and see who gets caught.''

But supporters of the Voting Rights Act say Georgia hasn't progressed as far as Westmoreland and his Republican colleagues claim.

Since the law was last reauthorized in 1982, the Justice Department has objected 91 times to changes in election law in Georgia, either at the state or local level, according to a report released last week by the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of civil rights groups.

The most common category of objections was over changes that tend to dilute minority voting strength, such as making elections at large rather than by district or ward.

But the report also cited mass challenges filed in Long and Atkinson counties in 2004 to registrations of Spanish-surnamed voters and last year's passage by the Republican-controlled General Assembly of legislation requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls.

Civil rights advocates argue that the ID requirement is an effort to keep black voters away from the polls because they tend to support Democratic candidates.

Statistics released last month by the secretary of state's office showed that a larger percentage of elderly black voters don't own driver's licenses than elderly white voters.

"You have a state that is still quite willing to manipulate the process,'' said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, based in Atlanta.

But Westmoreland said the vast majority of the federal objections cited by the report came before 2000, even though the General Assembly, counties, cities and school boards have taken up hundreds of redistricting proposals during this decade.

"We've had four complaints since '02 and seven since 2000,'' he said. "Is that bad?''

Westmoreland pointed out that during the same period, Florida went through the debacle over "hanging chads'' that threw the 2000 presidential election into disarray, while Ohio was ground zero in 2004 for complaints that a shortage of voting machines in black precincts helped sink John Kerry's candidacy.

Yet, neither state is subject to pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act, Westmoreland said.

Still, supporters of reauthorizing the law as it is written appear to have the upper hand.

With national polls showing voters leaning toward putting Democrats back in control of Congress, Republican leaders don't want the GOP to look soft on voting rights.

A vote in the House could come as early as this month, after the Fourth of July recess.