Voting rights provision a relic?
Bobby Bowers has been advising city, county and state leaders on how to comply with the Voting Rights Act since it was passed in 1965.
Voting Rights Act
Who must comply with the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act?
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia (except for one city), Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia (except for 14 counties and four cities).
It also applies to certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota; and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire.
Bowers, director of the Office of Research and Statistical Services for the State Budget and Control Board, and four other staffers have the huge task of making sure all of those groups comply with the act by making sure any changes that affect voting don’t negatively impact black voters and those from other minority groups. Those changes could be large ones, such as redrawing voting district lines, or smaller changes, such as moving a polling location.
But those staffers wouldn’t be needed in most states outside the South.
The U.S. Supreme Court could decide as early as Monday whether to consider ending the act’s pre-clearance provision. The provision requires nine mostly Southern states and several other jurisdictions in other states to get federal permission from the Justice Department before making any changes that affect voting. It was put in place to prevent areas with a history of racial discrimination from making changes that reduce the representation of minority voters.
Many civil rights leaders and elected officials think the requirement should remain in place because protection still is needed for minority voters. But others think the provision is no longer necessary, calling it a time-consuming and expensive relic that places an undue burden on Southern states.
Bowers, 72, has become known nationally as an expert on the provision. He spends much of his vacation time working as a consultant for other states. He thinks the provision was needed in 1965.
When asked if it was still needed today, Bowers said, “In some cases we probably do. In others, we probably don’t.”
The Rev. Joseph Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME Church and a civil rights advocate, said he thinks it’s definitely needed. “The results would be horrific” if the provision were removed, he said. The law makes it so the state “can’t politically emasculate people.” He would like to see the provision expanded to all 50 states.
Darby said he thinks people who want to see the provision ended are “at best misguided and at worst political wackos.”
But others disagree.
Greg Foster, spokesman for S.C. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, said state lawmakers recently have been hamstrung by its unintended consequences.
Earlier this year, about 200 candidates were disqualified from the ballot for failing to file on time a paper copy of a statement of economic interest. Lawmakers were advised that the time required to comply with the provision made it nearly impossible for them to clear up the issue in time for the election. That wouldn’t have been the case in most states, Foster said.
Charleston lawyer Larry Kobrovsky said he thinks the provision simply no longer is needed. Kobrovsky was considering filing a lawsuit to exempt Charleston County from the provision when he learned it was being weighed by the Supreme Court.
He thinks South Carolina has moved beyond the need for the provision, he said, and that it has some harmful side effects. “It takes away the fundamental right of self-government.”
The provision largely has been seen as a success, and Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent occasion was in 2006, when a Republican-led Congress overwhelmingly approved and President George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich. The Associated Press contributed to this report.