Rep. John Lewis is lucky that Georgia has Sonny Perdue as governor. Otherwise, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland and his House allies might succeed in permanently blocking renewal of sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Perdue administration and its fierce defense of Georgia's voter ID law have become Exhibit A in the case to keep the Voting Rights Act intact and maintain close watch on Georgia and the rest of the South in matters related to minority voting.
"You still can't trust the South" is a sentiment that many federal lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, share.
Even so, the outspoken Republican Westmoreland along with Rep. Charlie Norwood of Augusta managed last week to delay temporarily a House vote on renewing the act. The Republican House leadership is not happy. They see the delay creating problems in the November election for some moderate Northern Republican representatives. Several non-Southern Republicans are fearful of being labeled anti-civil rights.
Democrat Lewis of Atlanta is livid at the foot-dragging. The civil rights warrior fought for passage of the landmark law in the 1960s. Considered by many as the centerpiece of the civil rights movement, the act opened the way for hundreds of thousands of blacks to vote for the first time.
Lewis pledges a last-ditch fight to renew all aspects of the act. He says Georgia and other Southern states may revert to their discriminatory habits if the law is not extended.
Westmoreland sees a different picture. The Coweta County congressman does not believe the feds need to continue special oversight of the South. He also advocates updating the benchmark years of 1964, 1968 and 1972 to determine whether elections are discriminatory. Westmoreland can reel off a long list of reasons why minorities in Georgia no longer need the special protection of the Voting Rights Act.
Four of Georgia's 13 House members are black. Nine of the state's 34 elected statewide officials are black. When Rep. Cynthia McKinney was in the state Legislature, she succeeded in creating "max black" legislative districts, which virtually guaranteed election of black representatives and senators.
"Georgia has come a long way in 40 years, and the Voting Rights Act played a major role in that positive evolution," Westmoreland said a while back, as he prepared strategy to derail extension of the law.
However, Westmoreland probably didn't count on his fellow Georgia Republicans unwittingly coming to the aid of Lewis and others insistent on renewing the act as is.
Perdue signed into law a Georgia voter photo-ID bill that has made national headlines, nearly all of which put Georgia in a bad light. Civil rights advocates charged that the Georgia ID law is nothing more than a blatant attempt to suppress black and elderly voter turnout.
The Justice Department's career lawyers agreed with the criticism, though their politically appointed bosses insisted on approving the ID law.
Even former Georgia Republican Senate leader Chuck Clay has pointed out severe problems with enforcement of the voter ID bill. More than 600,000 Georgians could be disenfranchised because they have no drivers' licenses or other picture IDs. Support documents for applying for a picture ID could be easily forged.
Says Lewis: "It is ironic and very troubling that the opposition to the Voting Rights statute stems from major objections of members of Congress from Georgia. Georgia is the last place that should seek to relieve itself from the commitment to fully empowered, equal participation [in voting] that democracy implies."
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., is already using Georgia's ID law as an argument against Westmoreland & Co.
You are certain to hear more about the Georgia Voter ID law when debate resumes on the renewal, probably after the Supreme Court considers in early July a couple of Georgia and Texas redistricting cases. Westmoreland and his colleagues are all but certain to lose.
As Westmoreland observes, the current controversy is not really about whether to fix certain technical sections of the Voting Rights Act - "It is about politics." Nervous Republican leaders are not about to risk losing power because of a perception that they might oppose a venerable symbol of freedom and justice, even if that symbol is obsolete and in serious need of updating.
The derailing of the Voting Rights Act extension also would serve as further evidence of a Republican Congress paralyzed and divided over a sheaf of important issues ranging from immigration reform to the Iraq war.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at email@example.com. His Web site is www.billshipp.com.