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Beam: Court ruling on voting not end of world

Last Modified: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 5:04 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act isn’t surprising. Most Democrats, blacks and liberals believe the sky has fallen. Republicans and conservatives say it’s about time the high court ended discrimination against nine states, including Louisiana, and portions of six others.

For the time being, those states will no longer have to get U.S. Justice Department clearance before they can change election laws. The others are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Parts of the other states that are affected are in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, was typical of those who are upset by the court’s decision. He told The Advocate the court disregarded “the will of the American people” to impede and discourage minorities from voting in the future.

“This decision sets us back as a nation almost 50 years,” Richmond said.

That is a real stretch.

Gov. Bobby Jindal applauded the ruling.

“The court recognized that states can fairly design our own maps and run our own elections without the federal government,” he said. “The ruling says that all states and all people should be treated equally,” the governor said.

Few will deny the law was needed back in 1965 when voter discrimination, particularly against blacks, was rampant. They had to pay poll taxes, pass literacy tests and faced intimidation and violence when attempting to vote. Some lost their lives. However, considerable change has taken place in the nearly 50 years since then. No, we aren’t there yet, but a lot of progress has been made.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 majority opinion, and he notes the country has a black president and a black member of the Supreme Court. Roberts added that 48 years after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., the city is governed by a black mayor.

The ruling doesn’t say it’s now OK to discriminate against voters of any race. It simply puts those 15 states on a level playing field with the other 35. Citizens in any of the 50 states can still file suit if they believe their right to vote has been restricted or denied.

Yes, that might make the process more difficult, but those who feel discriminated against still have an advantage. Glenn Koepp, secretary of the Louisiana state Senate and a redistricting expert, said the voting law still bars discrimination. Koepp told The Advocate that government agencies found guilty of voting violations would have to pay all attorney fees, expert fees and other court expenses for those filing suits.

Congress can put more up-to-date voting restrictions in place, but Roberts said it has refused to do so on two previous occasions. Members of Congress overwhelmingly approved a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Law in 2006. However, the chief justice said they ignored current data showing the racial progress that has been made since 1965.

“The coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs,” Roberts said.

The court raised the same issue again in 2009 when it heard a similar case. Congress didn’t do anything at that time either to address issues raised by the high court.

Towns in New Hampshire were covered under the law, but they were excluded back in March. That is an example of what the court is talking about. In other words, if some states are improving their voting history, cut them out of the pack and free them from those legal restraints that were enacted in 1965.

Tom Schedler, secretary of state, notes that Louisiana has made great strides since 1965. He told The Advocate the state is third nationally in the percentage of eligible residents who are registered to vote.

Now that the pre-clearance provision is gone, states will have to be on guard and refrain from putting any procedures in place that would restrict black or other minority voting. If they do, Congress may finally decide to step in and do what Roberts said it failed to do in 2006 and 2009.

Some of those procedures include using at-large public officials to dilute black voting strength, restricting voting hours, drawing election lines that favor whites and enacting voter ID laws that are too restrictive. Louisiana has a voter ID law, but it lets voters cast a provisional ballot that is counted once their registration is verified.

Schedler offered some good advice to state legislators and local officials at every level who deal with voting qualifications.

“They’re going to have to do it fair from the beginning and not rely on Big Brother to tell them they’re doing it wrong,” Schedler said.

The odds are that Congress isn’t going to tamper with the Supreme Court voting rights ruling anytime soon. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a liberal Democrat from New York, explained why.

“As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no pre-clearance,” Schumer said.

OK, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Too many public officials have already jumped to conclusions. What is wrong with giving the new system a chance to work and see how it plays out in future elections? If it doesn’t, it can be fixed.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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