Did the Supreme Court ask the correct question? Rather than ask is it a “necessity,” the SCOTUS should have asked “are there enough checks and balances in place to avoid the prejudices that the Voting Rights Act was put in place to prevent?”
In the 1960s, the outwardly egregious acts aimed at reducing individual voting rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment were far more obvious than they are in the new millennium — except in Georgia. In 2013 Georgia, one of the states that was subject to the Department of Justice (DOJ) review of all government action that affects voting rights, has not one, but three separate and distinct challenges to minority voting rights. The Georgia General Assembly has undergone a pendulum swing creating a Republican majority after more than 100 years of Democratic control. The Republican leadership 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 “majority white district has never had one minority elected in its 191-year history,” said Valerie Holford of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The county had until the end of June to propose new voting methods. The recent ruling likely invalidated the district court ruling.
Further south of Fayette County is the city of Macon, located within Bibb County, where there was a referendum on the ballot asking voters if they wanted to move to all nonpartisan 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 in the newly consolidated county was changed to nonpartisan.
Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, the DOJ stepped in and 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.
The voter registration numbers and census clearly show a red area that will definitely be blue in just a few years. As such, Republicans who typically have an easier time fundraising can hide behind the nonpartisan elections to win Democratic votes based on name recognition, rather than political ideology.
Macon Democratic representatives assert that this change was created to disenfranchise minority voters because the nonpartisan elections are slated for the July primary voting season rather than the typical November elections. July has remarkably lower minority voter turnout each year.
In Georgia’s capital, there is a different challenge to the voting changes. During the last redistricting process for Fulton County, which houses the capital city of Atlanta, 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 redrawing of the Fulton County commission districts.
Typically, the county commissioners submit maps that are passed by their local delegates without question. This year, Fulton County Republican members outvoted the Democratic members and passed a map for the county commission seats drawn by House members. This 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 northern Fulton County. Conversely, the district sizes were reduced for the majority African-American and Democratic south Fulton County and city of Atlanta commission seats.
County commissioners have posed a court challenge, alleging that these changes were created to disenfranchise minority voters. This challenge will likely fail with a summary judgment motion. The map gives Republicans control over the county coffers used to support the majority African-American and Democratic county. Prior to the ruling, the DOJ was taking comments from the community on this issue.
Three separate counties in Georgia all have distinct voting rights issues. With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Department of Justice will no longer have power to review 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. In 2009, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, “Things have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Past success alone, however, is not adequate justification to retain the pre-clearance requirements. The Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”
The question to the esteemed chief justice is, although voter turnout has changed, has the minds and power of those who intend to disenfranchise minority voters also changed? Roberts’ opinion that the election of a black president invalidates the need is preposterous when Georgia is taken as an example.
It appears the prejudices may simply have been dormant and waiting for the opportunity to take control. Georgia is just one example that Section 5 is still a necessity. Now that the flood gates are open, we will see just how far the walls of prejudice will be pushed.
District 62 State Rep. LaDawn B. Jones, D-Atlanta, represents parts of eastern Douglas and south Fulton counties. She is also a criminal defense attorney and fiction author. Her website is www.LaDawnJones.com. Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.