Moderated by Rick Badie
As the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we pose this question: Have Georgia and its sister states in the Deep South outgrown the need for the law, notably Section 5, which requires prior federal approval for any change that affects voting? Two congressmen from Georgia weigh the issue.
Voting Rights Act necessary
By Hank Johnson
The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy. The Supreme Court has upheld the Voting Rights Act four times. The law was recently reauthorized by anoverwhelming votes of 98-0 vote in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.
After listening to nearly 50 witnesses — federal and state officials, Republicans, Democrats, and civil rights leaders — at 12 hearings, compiling a record of more than 12,000 pages, the House concluded the Voting Rights Act and its Section 5 were still essential.
After an equally extensive set of hearings, the Senate documented the need for continued protections against discrimination in voting and revealed that “the work of Section 5 [was] not done.”
All of this says the Voting Rights Act is as necessary today as it was in 1965. We cannot deny the progress that has been made. We cannot let that progress blind us to overlooking ongoing efforts to suppress voters.
Just last year, states across the country passed sweeping laws including voter ID, an end to same-day registration and cuts to early voting that studies show disenfranchised millions of voters in 2012. That’s why it’s shocking that the Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Before the Voting Rights Act, the South was the epicenter of voter intimidation and suppression. That’s why the act requires mostly Southern states to “pre-clear” any change to their voting laws with the U.S. Justice Department. This provision remains a critical protection for voters across the South.
Shelby County, Ala., which brought the suit against the law, has had 240 discriminatory voting measures recently blocked. In 2001, the all-white mayor and city board for Kilmichael, Miss., attempted to cancel an election shortly after black citizens had become a majority of registered voters. The Justice Department required the city to hold an election. The citizens elected the town’s first African-American mayor and three African-American aldermen.
Since the Voting Rights Act’s enactment, the U.S. attorney general has objected to more than 1,000 proposed changes. Of those, Georgia had 177 proposed changes rejected, five as recently as 2009 and three in the past year alone.
In December, Justice Department objections prevented two redistricting plans with discriminatory effects on local minorities, as well as a plan to move an election date that could have resulted in 55 percent fewer black voters casting ballots.
These are just a few examples of the continuing efforts to restrict access to the polls. We should all appreciate that the Voting Rights Act stops these regressive policies.
Opponents argue the act infringes on a state’s right to be free from federal oversight. What they are saying is that the Voting Rights Act infringes on the right of local officials to be free from the burden of having to fill out paperwork to justify a potentially discriminatory new election rule or voting practice.
We need this law. The disease of discrimination and voter intimidation is not yet cured.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat, represents Georgia’s 4th Congressional District.
Update Voting Rights Act
By Lynn Westmoreland
Everyone agrees the Voting Rights Act was desperately needed when it was passed in 1965. But that was nearly 50 years ago. Since its passage, we have seen dramatic changes across the country, especially in the South, that point to the fact that the act needs updating. Georgia has four African-American members of Congress and some of the highest minority voter turnout in the country. In fact, in November 2012, a higher percentage of registered African-American females turned out to vote than registered white females or males.
I’m not the only one who has noticed our changing times.
In 2009, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder expressing their concerns. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by the nearly unanimous Supreme Court, stated that the Voting Rights Act “now raises serious constitutional concerns,” and that it “differentiates between states in ways that may no longer be justified.” They did not go so far as to find Section 5 unconstitutional, but they urged Congress to modernize it.
Yet more than three years later, Congress has done nothing, still feeling the need to punish certain areas of the country for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. To put in perspective just how outdated this law is, people who became eligible to vote the year this law was passed became eligible for Medicare last year.
Congress had a chance to update this law in 2006 when it came up for reauthorization to make sure it remained constitutional. By 2000, African-Americans in preclearance states like Mississippi and South Carolina were registering in higher rates than whites. In our home state of Georgia, we had 582 African-American elected officials by 2000, up from 30 in 1970. And Mississippi, a state with one of the worst problems in the 1960s, had 897 African-American elected officials by the year 2000, up from 67 in 1970.
That is proof of real change, and why I pushed so hard to update the act in 2006. But my pleas to update the coverage formula to reflect more recent elections and to require the federal government to provide modern examples of discrimination in preclearance states fell on deaf ears.
And now, seven years later, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court is calling into question the coverage formula and why certain states are subject to Section 5 over others, the exact constitutional concerns I raised in 2006.
We no longer suffer from the voting rights issues we saw in 1965 that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. If the Supreme Court overturns Section 5, it will not weaken the positive impact the act has had on our country, nor would it diminish the importance of the civil rights movement. It would simply update an outdated law and acknowledge the progress that has been made since 1965.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican, represents Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District.