Walter C. Jones

Decision gives politicians new latitude

The question raised by last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act is what will Georgia politicians do with their new latitude. 

The court did not scrap the protections for minority voters in the federal law, only the mechanism that made Georgia submit every change in its voting procedures for federal preclearance. That means alterations to polling places, precinct lines and wording on registration forms no longer have to be shipped to Washington for 90 days of consideration before they can take effect. 

It ended the administrative burden and expense of having to justify such seemingly minor, routine updates to officials hundreds of miles away who have never visited the locations they are evaluating. It did not end the basis for their deliberations, specifically the core of the law that prevents weakening minority electoral power through political trickery. 

Instead of every change, large and small, automatically coming under federal scrutiny, the remaining law requires someone to file a lawsuit in order to object. Of course, lawsuits are expensive and drawn out and more involved than simply writing a letter to the Justice Department, notes William Boone, political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. 

“It means there’ll be a hard legal battle to fight,” he said. 

Congress enacted the original Voting Rights Act when Democrats controlled Georgia. Now Republicans are in command. In many respects, the law is responsible for the change because by ensuring black voters are grouped together in what insiders call “majority-minority” districts, it left the remaining voters in overwhelmingly white districts where conservative Republicans routinely win. 

Proof of that dynamic can be seen in the fact that the state’s last edition of legislative and congressional maps won easy preclearance and encountered no court challenges, a first for the state since the law took effect. 

GOP leaders say their popularity doesn’t require them to use gimmicks to stay in control. 

“Our continued dedication to voting rights in Georgia will verify the wisdom of the court’s determination today,” Gov. Nathan Deal said when the court announced its ruling. “The Voting Rights Act, when passed, was a clarion call for human rights and stands as one of the most important laws in our nation’s history. In fact, the fact that we no longer need Section 5 testifies to the success of the law much more than its renewal ever could.” 

And the party says it’s not rushing to abuse its new-found freedom from preclearance. 

“I’m not really expecting any wholesale movement to redraw district lines,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. 

After all, the GOP not only controls every statewide office but it also has a majority of Georgia’s congressional seats and is one vote shy of a two-thirds majority in the statehouse. 

“I don’t expect there to be major changes, at least not in the near future,” he added. 

That’s small comfort to Democrats who fear procedural changes as much as gerrymandering. Young Democrats President Stephen Golden points to the photo-ID law, citizenship verification, reduced advanced voting and other steps he claims are designed to frustrate minority voters. 

“To a degree, the Georgia legislature may feel like they can run roughshod over individuals,” he said. 

Ralston counters that those procedural changes are about electoral honesty. 

“What we have tried to do as a Republican majority is to ensure that elections are free of fraud and have integrity,” he said. 

Boone, though, suspects a different motive. 

“The joke in all of this, from my vantage point, is all of the demographic changes -- and we know that we are going from a majority white to more of distinct groups,” Boone said. 

Georgia’s demographic shift comes because its black and Hispanic population is growing faster than its white population. The GOP is likely to use its power to extend its dominance in the face of demographics just as the Democrats did when the white population grew faster in the decades after the law passed. 

The last Georgia law the Justice Department refused to preclear was moving municipal elections in the state’s consolidated cities like Augusta and Macon from November to July. Critics charge that was aimed at fooling blacks who are used to voting in the fall and typically turn out in smaller numbers on other dates. 

The sponsor of that law, Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, has announced intensions of reviving it for her city which holds non-partisan elections. 

People will have to judge for themselves whether that justifies Democrats’ fears or not. 

(Walter Jones has been covering Georgia politics since 1998 and is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News.)

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