As the ladies and gentlemen who are the bonus babies at AIG may well discover, those who stand between politicians and re-election — be they individuals or principles — are certain to be trampled.
Such was the case in the lead-up to the 2006 elections when Congress stampeded a 25-year extension of “emergency” provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which were to expire in 2007. Not the Voting Rights Act itself, mind you; The “temporary” provisions put in place 41 years earlier.
Under Section 5, Alaska, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and all but 11 counties in Virginia are required to get U.S. Justice Department approval for proposed changes in election law.
In a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, a Texas utility district with no history of discrimination that was first created in 1987 sued to challenge the extension and whether its election laws should be subject to Justice Department oversight. The case will be argued next month. The extension of Section 5 oversight came not because anything discriminatory in the covered states warranted it, but because no politician in one of the states not covered dared risk alienating any constituency.
It’s the occasional embarrassment of democracy that, as we are witnessing with the AIG bonuses, politics trumps the Constitution, fairness and common sense. That applies equally to Republicans and Democrats, including President George W. Bush, who signed the 25-year extension.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has joined the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One in an important test of whether Congress acted without “adequate basis” in extending preclearance requirements.
“Today’s Georgia is not, as Congress suggests, a place where the state or local governments sponsor racial discrimination in the electoral process that must be curbed by the federal government,” argues the brief prepared by Anne Lewis of Atlanta’s Strickland Brockington Lewis law firm. Lewis, one of Atlanta Magazine’s super lawyers for 2009, was widely praised for her work in defending Georgia’s Voter ID law.
Her arguments on Perdue’s behalf are that the 25-year renewal “is not rationally related to the alleged ill Congress seeks to cure: perceived racial discrimination in the electoral process” and was therefore unconstitutional. Congress, ignoring the changed world, relied on data from 1964 in extending Section 5 and “left in place the first coverage formula ever used.” At the end of the 25 years, that data will be almost 70 years old.
Once covered, always covered, she argues. Technically, covered states and districts can gain release. But that’s a ruse, since Georgia would be responsible for any offense committed by any form of government at any level.
“Georgia has nearly 900 governmental jurisdictions: 531 cities, and 183 school districts,” Lewis notes. “In addition, Georgia has more than 570 ’special districts’ of one type or another … Unlike many states, no Georgia jurisdictions are under the control of any other entity.” Each functions independently.
In 2006, a five-person voter-registration board in Randolph County gave a voter-registration card to a school board member in the district where he’d moved. The Department of Justice objected, and required Randolph to keep him in the district where he formerly lived so he could run for re-election there. It was a questionable decision involving a county that “consists of 0.0782 percent of the entire population of Georgia,” and yet the entire state is deemed responsible — and precluded from gaining freedom from Section 5 for another seven years.
To get relief, too, the state would have to review tens of thousands of laws, rules and regulations over 44 years for more than 1,400 jurisdictions that don’t report to the state. “That requirement is, for a covered state like Georgia, a logistical impossibility,” Lewis writes in the brief.
Democracy does require all three branches of government. On rare occasion, the legislative and the executive branch are willing to trample through the Constitution to save their own political skin. That may be punishing nine states. It may be levying confiscatory taxes on the bonuses of the unpopular.