It’s ironic that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the “necessity” of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Is the Supreme Court asking the correct question? Rather than ask is it a “necessity,” the court should ask “are there are enough checks and balances in place to avoid the prejudices that the Voting Rights Act was put in place to prevent?”
In the 1960’s, the egregious acts aimed at reducing individual voting rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment were far more obvious than they are in the new millennium — except in Georgia.
In 2013, Georgia, one of the states subject to U.S. Justice Department review of all government action that effects voting rights, has not one, but three separate challenges to minority voting rights. The Republican leadership in Georgia is wasting no time in creating rules that will maintain their control.
In May, a U.S. District Court struck down the at-large voting policy of Fayette County. The court determined that the county’s process for electing county commissioners, school board members, and board of elections members violates the Voting Rights Act.The County has until the end of June to propose new voting methods.
In Macon, there was a referendum asking voters if they wanted to move to all non-partisan elections for county positions. The voters overwhelmingly said “no.” Then, just months later, the Bibb County delegation, which became majority Republican after the 2010 Republican-led redistricting, passed hotly contested local legislation that would overturn the will of the voters. Elections were changed to nonpartisan. The Justice Department has halted the planned July elections and required the delegation to provide answers regarding the purpose of the change.
Some Democrats allege that this change is a way to prevent Republican leadership from losing ground in an area that is becoming increasingly Democratic. As such, Republicans who typically have an easier time fund-raising, can hide behind the nonpartisan elections to win Democratic votes based on name recognition, rather than political ideology.
In Atlanta, there is a different challenge to the voting changes. During the last redistricting process for Fulton County, a majority Republican body drew in four additional Republican House and Senate members into the Fulton County delegation. The new members may only have one parcel of land in the county, but by the rules of the legislature, they get a vote on all local delegation matters. One of those votes included the re-drawing of the Fulton County Commission districts.
Typically, county commissioners submit maps that are passed by their local delegates without question. This year, Fulton County Republican members outvoted the Democratic members. The new map and the legislation that joined it reduced at-large voting members from two to one for each voter, and drastically changed the district lines. A new district was drawn in the overwhelmingly white and Republican North Fulton. Conversely, the district sizes were reduced for the majority African-American and Democratic South Fulton and city of Atlanta commission seats. County Commissioners have posed a court challenge, alleging that these changes were created to disenfranchise minority voters.
Whatever the decisions of the Justice Department in each case, it is clear that, if in one year there are this many concerns for one state, then maybe we have not progressed as far as we would think from 1965. Georgia is just one example that Section 5 is still a necessity.