Politics of voting in South reshaped

1965 law: The debate over minority voting districts has put members of both parties in unusual and difficult positions.

August 07, 2005|By Jonathan Tilove | Jonathan Tilove,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Forty years ago yesterday, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, bolstering the right of blacks to vote in states where it had been denied or suppressed.

Today, Southern politics have been transformed in two fundamental ways: Blacks exercise power and hold office in great numbers, and Republicans, with almost no black support, are the dominant party.

The two are not unrelated. Republican gains came partly through creation of black districts, which improved GOP prospects in surrounding districts "bleached" of blacks, who reliably vote Democratic.

The VRA's key provisions expire in 2007. And with Congress facing a vote on reauthorization, the topsy-turvy politics of voting rights are coming to a head.

In 2003, in Georgia v. Ashcroft, the Supreme Court ruled - over the objections of the Bush Justice Department - that the state's Democrat-controlled Legislature did not violate the VRA in drawing up a state Senate redistricting plan that spread black voters out a bit.

The court's conservatives said black political interests were better served with more Democratic districts, even if this risked electing fewer blacks. In the past, the federal government had used the VRA to reject any plan that reduced the concentration of blacks in districts where they were the majority. There was to be no backsliding.

Writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor remarked that she was particularly moved by Democratic Rep. John Lewis' testimony in favor of the redistricting plan. Lewis, hero of the bloody battle for voting rights in Selma, Ala., that precipitated passage of the VRA, was elected to Congress from a black district in Atlanta in 1986.

Now the nation's civil rights leadership - as represented by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and others - wants to limit the impact of Georgia v. Ashcroft. They argue that the premium should be placed on whether minority voters can elect candidates of their race, not merely candidates of their party.

This requires the Democrats, the civil rights movement's staunchest allies, to spurn a court decision that seemed a gift.

Section 5 of the VRA requires places with a history of discrimination - all of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas; parts of Virginia and North Carolina; and all or part of a few other states - to get federal approval before altering voting practices or procedures, redistricting included. It was this process that brought the Georgia plan to the nation's highest court.

The iconic leader of the reauthorization drive in Congress is none other than Lewis, who wants to rewrite Section 5 to restore the pre-Georgia v. Ashcroft interpretation of the law. "I think we've got to find some balance, some happy medium," he said.

He is in the unusual position of asking colleagues to correct a Supreme Court opinion that lionizes his own longing for "an all-inclusive community, where we would be able to forget about race and color and see people as people, as human beings, just as citizens."

But his logic is that the court provided local officials with leeway that a less enlightened jurisdiction might misuse. "I believe that there is the strong possibility that in certain states, certain counties and certain political districts, they would return to the dark past," he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans face their own predicament.

Resist the reauthorization, or merely a stronger Section 5, and they risk inflaming minority voters - all to gut a law that has proved useful in running up GOP majorities in the South. They hand the Democrats an issue in the 2006 midterm elections, even as they themselves try to get right with black voters. Go along, and they betray segments of their white base who bristle that, after four decades and a world of change, Section 5 still singles out the South for special scrutiny.

"I just don't see the need for it," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican.

He pointed out that Georgia's attorney general, labor commissioner and three of its state Supreme Court justices, including the chief justice - all of whom are elected - are black. Two of its four black members of Congress - Sanford Bishop and David Scott - are from majority-white districts.

"We are supposed to be one nation, and if we are going to have [Section 5], it ought to apply to all 50 states," Westmoreland said.

But Debo Adegbile, associate director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said making Section 5 national - or permanent, as some Republicans suggest - would be an unconstitutional overreach, setting it up for fatal challenge before the Supreme Court.

All this accumulated irony reflects the contending ways in which the South has changed since Johnson signed the law.

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