Minorities still facing threats to voting rights

June 26, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- In the four decades since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, this nation has undergone a dramatic political and social transformation. From California to New York, from Virginia to Florida, black men and women have won election to political offices, including prestigious statewide posts.

Given that progress, some politicians and social observers say, the Voting Rights Act has outlived its usefulness. It's time to let it die, they say.

Many of their arguments are rational and persuasive. They point out that Democrats and Republicans have both misused the law to protect incumbents. Southern legislatures draw political boundaries that pack voters of color into awkwardly designed districts. Given the continuing tendency of voters to favor their own ethnic or racial groups, that process usually ensures the election of a black candidate, almost always a Democrat. The same process leaves nearby districts overwhelmingly white, ensuring the election of a white Republican.

Others say it is unfair to pick on the Deep South because of discriminatory practices they claim ended long ago. They are especially incensed by Section 5, a provision that requires nine Southern states to get permission from the Justice Department to change any voting procedure.

Recently, two Republican congressmen from Georgia, Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood, used arguments about unfairness to persuade their GOP colleagues to put off a vote on extending the law; parts of it will expire next year without congressional action. "Singling out certain states for special scrutiny no longer makes sense," Mr. Westmoreland said.

I wish I could side with Mr. Westmoreland. I'd like nothing more than to believe that this country has made enough racial progress to drop special protections for voters of color.

And I'd readily trade the Voting Rights Act for an independent commission that draws districts so they are not shaped like a balloon animal on acid. Many voting rights scholars, however, say the Voting Rights Act would not permit sanely shaped districts; it practically requires that black voters be lumped together to increase their political strength. Unfortunately, such districts also promote highly partisan, extremist politics.

But a year ago, the GOP-dominated Georgia Legislature reminded me why the Voting Rights Act remains a necessary protection for voters of color. Georgia Republicans rammed through a divisive requirement for state-issued photo IDs at the polls. While Republicans claimed they wanted only to protect against voter fraud, that contention wears not one stitch of credibility. There is much more fraud in the use of absentee ballots, but the legislature loosened the laws governing those.

What Georgia Republicans really wanted to do was bar a small group of voters who tend to be rural, isolated, poor and predominantly black. According to many studies, those voters are less likely to own a car and, therefore, less likely to have a driver's license. They are also more likely to vote for Democrats.

They may be a small group, but they'd make a difference in close races. For years, Republicans have used similar strategies around the country, trying to bar voting by small numbers of Latinos, blacks and American Indians, all of whom are more likely to support Democrats.

In a new book, Cheating Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, Spencer Overton, a George Washington University law professor, writes: "The different voting patterns of many people of color give politicians the motive to suppress their votes, and the unique physical and socioeconomic traits that characterize people of color make them particularly vulnerable." In other words, a race-conscious remedy is still needed.

Perhaps in another decade or two, voters of color will no longer be vulnerable to attempts to limit their franchise. Or, even better, perhaps all politicians will reject un-American tactics that try to keep certain voters from the ballot box.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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