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Throw Out the Voting Rights Act!

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Baton Rouge, Louisiana



Are institutionalized acts of racism interwoven in the election procedures that regularly take place in Louisiana? Is there a concentrated effort on the part of Louisiana elections officials to put up barriers so that it is more difficult for minorities to participate in the election process? The Louisiana congressional delegation must think so. They voted in lockstep with a large majority of congress to keep Louisiana and a handful of other states under constant federal election watch, branding them as second class states when it comes to running elections.

Republicans and Democrats alike (including then Congressman Bobby Jindal and both current Louisiana U.S. Senators) basically sent a message that Louisiana could not be trusted to run fair elections. The other states in the list include Alabama, Arizona, Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. (Interesting to note that both members of the recent Republican national ticket are from states that also apparently cannot carry off an honest election).

Under the Voting Rights Act, passed back in 1965, these few states must obtain permission or “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any changes that affect voting. That’s even the slightest change. If a voting both is to be moved a few feet, pre-clearance is necessary. The effort is both costly and time consuming. So the current federal law is saying that in a few states, located mostly in the south, state and local officials cannot e trusted to abide by the law. The federal government must look over their shoulder.

The federal restrictions are also a complete waste of time and money. From the time I took over as Secretary of State back in 1980 until today, there has not been one case were elections officials were involved in any questionable activity that compromised the elections process. Not one. I had personally discussed this burdensome process with former Secretary of State Fox McKeithen before his death, and he confirmed of facing no problems of any kind. The same goes for current Secretary of State Jay Dardenne who I discussed this issue with just a few days ago. So what we have in Louisiana is a situation where there are no problems, no elections barriers, no discrimination, just a burdensome federal bureaucracy to deal with.

Certainly there were problems of voter discrimination throughout the south back in the 1960s. And there is a basis for the federal government to intercede when barriers are set up to keep certain groups from voting. The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified five years after the Civil War, guarantees the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and grants congress the enforcement power. That didn’t stop a number of states, in both the north and south, to put up road blocks including literacy tests, character requirements and other pretexts to keep primarily blacks from voting. And Louisiana was as creative as any other state in either prohibiting or controlling the voting of minorities, particularly blacks. Thus the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

It’s a different world in the Bayou State today where black and white voting registration rates are virtually identical. 30.6 % of Louisiana’s population is black, but African Americans make up 31% of total registered voters. Of Louisiana’s five largest cities, four have black mayors including New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Yet by keeping Louisiana restricted with the voting rights provisions, congress has made a finding that the sovereign dignity of Louisiana is less than that of the majority of other states in this country.

An obscure Texas court case may be the catalyst to bring Louisiana and the handful of other state affected up to equal footing with the rest of the country. Arguments were heard last month before the U.S. Supreme Court on the propriety of voting rights requirements in a small Texas water district. Though the case involves a small jurisdiction, The New York Times points our that the implications stir up “a fascinating brew of two of the most freighted issues in constitutional law, race and federalism.”

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month, and could bring down a decision within the next few weeks. Whatever the court decides, the decision will be the biggest election-law case on the court’s docket since Bush v. Gore. One compelling argument in favor of doing away with the law is that there are few violations (none in Louisiana), and as Justice Kennedy noted: “There is evidence that it costs states and the municipalities a billion dollars over 10 years to comply.”

One of the knocks on Louisiana is the lack of white votes received by President Obama in the past presidential election. Obama won 14% of the white vote, down from John Kerry’s 24% from four years ago. This was the biggest drop off in the nation, and The New York Times cited this figure as one more reason to keep the Voting Rights Act intact. “Despite his strong national margin of victory-and hefty campaign chest-Mr. Obama got only about one in five white votes in Southern states covered by the Voting Rights Act. And there is every reason to believe that minority voters will continue to face obstacles at the polls.”

In other words, according to the Times, the fact that only a small percentage of white voters voted for Obama shows that the system in Louisiana deters black voters from voting. This of course is a ridiculous effort to find correlation in the inclinations of who you vote for, and the process itself. There is no such correlation.

Here’s the question. At what point does congress, including the entire Louisiana Congressional delegation, wipe the slate clean and accept that we are equals with equal rights, equal treatment and equal expectations? When will our leadership determine that special treatment should not be provided to anyone?

It may take the Supreme Court to give Louisiana the fairness that congress, including members from Louisiana, failed to acknowledge. If our own congressional delegation thinks we are a second rate state and cannot be trusted with seeing that fair elections take place, is it any wonder why the rest of the country holds Louisiana in such low esteem?


Oh Lord, please let me die in Louisiana, so I can keep on voting and be active in politics.”

Gov. Earl Long

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim’s syndicated column appears weekly in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south. You can read all his back columns by going to www.jimbrownla,.com.

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