Voting Rights Act Remains Pertinent
By Julian Bond

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
June 26, 2006

If murderers would promise not to murder again, we could eliminate all our laws against unlawful killing. No laws against murder — no murders.

That is analogous to the argument made by some Republicans against reauthorizing the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

We may have done wrong in the past, they say, but we won't in the future. So we can now eliminate the most effective civil rights law ever passed.

The act doesn't expire until September 2007, but a bipartisan coalition in Congress had pledged renewal this year. Now that effort has been derailed. Leading the train wreck has been U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA). He wants to radically alter Section 5 of the act, which requires federal permission to change voting rules in nine states. The 1965 Voting Rights Act initially focused on six states where blacks had been systematically denied the right to vote — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. Three more states — Arizona, Texas and Alaska — were added 10 years later to protect language minorities.

"The pre-clearance portions of the Voting Rights Act should apply to all states, or no states," Westmoreland argues. "Singling out certain states for special scrutiny no longer makes sense."

But "all states" don't have the history of the six originally covered by the act, including Westmoreland's Georgia.

Westmoreland knows full well that applying Section 5 to all 50 states likely will make the act unconstitutional, no doubt the outcome he wants. Singling out certain states, including Georgia, makes perfect sense.

From the end of Reconstruction forward, Georgia's white supremacist governments and private white citizens devoted considerable energy to preventing black citizens from registering to vote or casting ballots. Their tactics included murder, ballot stuffing, poll taxes, literacy tests that whites passed but most blacks failed, and wholesale intimidation.

When former Urban League Director and Georgia native Vernon Jordan testified for renewing the act in 1970, he said Georgia and other Southern states "were the most efficient, determined and malicious in their efforts to keep black people off the registration rolls."

In Harris County in Westmoreland's 8th Congressional District, blacks were 57 percent of the population in 1955, but no blacks were on the grand jury list, and blacks were only 2.3 percent of the trial jury list. Westmoreland's Douglas County adopted a majority vote requirement in 1968 without asking for pre-clearance when a black candidate prepared to run for office. The county was sued over this discriminatory procedure in 1975.

Since the act was last renewed in 1982, the Department of Justice has objected 80 times to proposed changes in Georgia's voting plans, finding they were discriminatory. Recently, only the Department of Justice's political appointees saved a biased Georgia voter identification law over the objections of career Justice Department lawyers. A federal court eventually struck the law down, but Georgia passed a substitute which justice's political appointees pre-cleared.

Sadly, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists 40 hate groups in Georgia today, operating from Athens to Valdosta, and ranging from the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations to the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of the South.

Congress was justifiably proud of its bipartisan intention to renew the Voting Rights Act. The partisan objections of a few disgruntled defenders of a discredited system shouldn't be allowed to end agreement across the aisle on a law President Ronald Reagan said protected the "crown jewel" of our democracy, the right to vote.

Westmoreland was quoted as saying about his and his colleagues' objections to the Voting Rights Act, "A lot of it looks as if these are some old boys from the South who are trying to do away with it."

Yup, it sure does.

We need renewal of the Voting Rights Act as is — just as we need to keep laws against murder on the books.

Copyright © 2006
(Labor donated)