Wednesday, May 10, 2006

This post wasn't precleared

Where to begin with today's Birmingham News story about U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions' desire to remove the Voting Rights Act's preclearance requirements for many areas of the South?

Perhaps we should start with his question about why Section 5 of the act singles out nine entire states, most in the South, and parts of seven others, most in other regions, to require officials there to get Justice Department approval before changing election procedures. The News offers an easy answer: The covered areas have "a long history of discriminating against groups of minority voters." If you're looking to fix a flat tire on the driver's side, you don't jack up the passenger's side.

Then we should examine the substance of the Alabama senator's objection. One of Sessions' arguments is that preclearance improperly burdens local officials even when they seek to do mundane things like move a polling place down the street. True, the process requires a little extra paperwork, but it's also speedy and rarely stops localities from doing what they planned. The DOJ has a 60-day window to decide whether it objects to a proposal, and it approved all but .05 percent of requests from 1998 to 2002. A few forms and a short wait are reasonable prices to stamp out racially discriminatory practices in places with a history of them.

Sessions also complains that Section 5 coverage is too tough for jurisdictions to escape. But the law allows states and counties to "bail out" of its provisions if they go 10 years without any voting discrimination. Considering that election officials are supposed to adhere to election laws all the time, it isn't unreasonable to ask them to do so for a decade as a show of good faith.

Those considerations aside, has the South made enough progress in the last 41 years to let the preclearance requirements expire? Sessions, for his part, asserts that Alabama's judiciary would weed out any discrimination in the state without the need for federal intervention: "[T]he people of my state don't ... have any interest in moving away from this great right of everybody to vote." On the off chance that Sessions gets his way and Section 5 isn't renewed before August 2007, his hypothesis will be put to the test.


Blogger Lee P said...

I agree with Senator Sessions - I think it's time for us to get rid of the double standard, either by repealing Section 5 altogether or imposing its requirements on every other state.

3:35 AM  
Blogger Lee P said...

By "repeal," I meant "not renew," but you knew that, right?

3:37 AM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

In the end, the renewal vote's outcome will depend less on any objective factors than on lawmakers' subjective sense of whether the South has progressed far enough from its Jim Crow past.

Sessions may be right that state officials and courts would handle any discrimination proactively and effectively, but that's a tough sell among many people from other regions (and some from this one, too) due to their continuing perception that major race problems linger in the South. Sadly, despite the remarkable progress here since the 1960s, Alabama didn't do much to alleviate those concerns when 40 percent voted to keep the interracial marriage ban on the books in 2000 or when a majority voted not to strike segregation-era language from the state constitution in 2004. In the context of the Voting Rights Act, image truly is everything.

Section 5 is almost certain to be renewed because few politicians, even ones who might not like it, want to vote against it in an election year. In the near future, the best way for counties or states to escape coverage will be to render the issue moot by going a decade without violations and then seeking a bailout.

Application of Section 5 to all states is worth serious consideration both for fairness and practical reasons. The areas covered by the act don't have a monopoly on poor election planning and practices, as Florida proved in 2000 and as Ohio proved in 2004 and again last week. Still, it won't happen any time soon, due to both higher costs and fierce opposition from states not already subject to the act.

5:30 AM  

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