Voting ruling's impact extensive
by SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Before Tuesday’s ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, the city of Newnan was awaiting approval for its new city council districts from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Now that the “preclearance” section of the Voting Rights Act no longer applies, it appears the city no longer needs Justice Department approval of the new council districts.
“We’re just going to proceed,” said Brad Sears, Newnan city attorney.
The new districts were submitted to the Justice Department around the first of June, said Sears, and there is a 60-day window for approval.
Under the Voting Rights Act, certain jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination were required to get “preclearance” for any change even remotely related to voting. That included not just council districts and registration requirements, but also voting hours, precinct locations, and even things as mundane as property annexations.
On Tuesday, in the case of Shelby County (Alabama) vs. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that the “coverage formula” in Section Four of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional because it didn’t take into effect changes since the 1960s.
Discrimination based on race is still illegal, of course. But without Section 4, jurisdictions don’t have to get federal permission before they make changes. Instead, lawsuits or complaints must be filed to protest the changes.
The court did not rule on Section 5 itself, which is the preclearance section. Instead, the court said preclearance requirements could be brought back if Congress comes up with a better formula.
The case centers on the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
During the debate on the reauthorization, Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta resident and Republican who represents Georgia’s Third Congressional District, urged Congress to update the formula in Section 4.
Westmoreland was roundly criticized and even ridiculed by some for his stance.
“This ruling should not come as a surprise,” Westmoreland said in a statement.
“The Supreme Court urged Congress in 2009 to update the Voting Rights Act because it ‘raises serious constitutional concerns’ and ‘differentiates between states in ways that may no longer be justified.’ That’s because this law used outdated information to set the formula for preclearance and punished certain areas of the country for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers,” he said. “That’s why I pushed so hard to update the coverage formula.”
“Unfortunately, my pleas fell on deaf ears and the law was not updated. If my colleagues had only joined me in updating the law, we would not be at a place where the VRA has essentially become toothless,” he said.
At the time, Westmoreland had suggested a formula that would have used voter turnout data from the last three presidential elections.
“While it’s unclear whether my amendment in 2006 would have absolutely stopped the Supreme Court from overturning Section 4, I can’t help but wonder if my colleagues now regret their decision to not support it,” Westmoreland said. “Unfortunately, my attempt to correct injustice and discrimination by using current information was turned into a false attack on the Voting Rights Act itself.”
He said he is hopeful Congress will act on setting up a new formula.
However, “the Court’s ruling is still new, so it’s unclear what — if anything — can be passed in the House to update the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has expressed his interest in looking into it, Westmoreland said. “However, it is clear that this is such a complex issue, and reform would take some time to figure out, if it is even possible.”
Cowetan Robert Wood, who served 12 years on the Coweta County Board of Commissioners and several years as the president of the Coweta NAACP, agrees that the coverage formula needed work. But he feels that it should have been expanded to cover even more areas, not done away with.
“There is so much going on now with voting and elections. It’s not even about race anymore,” Wood said. “You’ve got a federal law in 20 states because they were notoriously doing what they were doing 40 years ago. Now you’ve got 40 states that are doing it.”
“People are doing things to try to set things up the way they want them,” he said. States and local governments are trying to redistrict “based on who they want elected at this moment … but what they fail to understand is nobody stays in the majority. Nobody maintains control forever.”
Wood said the way things were done before the ruling wasn’t perfect, but “at least all of the stakeholders got to sit down and discuss what was going on” rather than a group of lawmakers “deciding this is what we are going to do and even their own voters don’t know what they are doing.”
Wood said that, when he was president of the NAACP and there were preclearance reviews taking place, “they would contact us and ask us what we thought.”
Wood remembers working with the Department of Justice under both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration.
“We never had any major issues,” Wood said. Now that preclearance is no longer the law of the land, “I hope and pray that the people in Coweta County will have the good sense to understand that we work better with a democracy where all the people are fairly represented than we do with a few being represented or some gerrymandering.”
If people in government or running for office have good ideas and communicate them to the people “you don’t have to do all that stuff,” Wood said.
He doesn’t expect problems here.
“In the 25 years or so I’ve been involved in Coweta County politics, Coweta County has always been different,” Wood said.