Officials, local citizens divided over change to Voting Rights Act
On June 25, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the preclearance coverage formula in Section 4b of the Voting Rights of 1965 was unconstitutional. As defined in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, preclearance is the act of the U.S. Department of Justice approving any attempts to changes in voting qualifications or practices, which include the movement of polling locations and alterations to voting districts within localities.
A judicial decision was met with both high praise and sharp criticisms last week as government officials and Northern Neck citizens commented on its potential impact.
On June 25, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the preclearance coverage formula in Section 4b of the Voting Rights of 1965 was unconstitutional.
As defined in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, preclearance is the act of the U.S. Department of Justice approving any attempts to changes in voting qualifications or practices, which include the movement of polling locations and alterations to voting districts within localities.
Currently, although preclearance itself has not been eliminated from the Act, no locality has to “preclear” any voting changes with the federal government until a new coverage formula is agreed upon.
Widely regarded as a landmark piece of national legislation, The Voting Rights Act has barred county and state officials from putting into place any discrimination laws that prevented equal rights as set forth by the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
On Aug. 6, 1965, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act under Section 5 following a war between civil rights activists and southern state legislators.
Nine southern states, Virginia among them, were placed under a special enforcement provision because they were deemed by Congress to have the greatest potential for discrimination. Included in the provisions were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
But the fight for equal rights would not end. The extension of Section 5 would be challenged four times in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006.
Activists in the act’s history have attempted to amend it, contending that discrimination is no longer commonplace.
Other organizations such as the National Association for Advancement of Color People (NAACP) disagree with those notions and viewed the 5-4 by the Supreme Court as a step backwards for civil rights.
“On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Shelby County v. Holder case. The decision invalidates Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and represents a huge setback for voting rights and has the potential to negatively affect millions of citizens in Virginia and nationwide,” the Virginia State NAACP stressed in a release.
Westmoreland County NAACP President Gladys Johnson said the local chapter is in full support of the state branch.
“The Westmoreland Branch NAACP will work with the Virginia State NAACP in protecting voters from losing their right to vote simply because of their race,” Johnson said.
Joseph Gaines, a former member of the Richmond County chapter of the NAACP, denounced the Supreme Court’s decision as a “terrible situation” for both the state and the country.
“I think it’s a setback for people who fought for not only the voter’s rights, [but] it’s a slap in the face for civil rights, because it leaves less protection for minorities,” said Gaines, adding that “some of the states still have a discrimination mentality.”
He did, however, say that out of all the states, Virginia was the nation’s best chance of fighting the law due to its sizable population of minority voters.
“Thank God we have people that are not racist,” said Gaines. “We have to join together and fight back on the ruling.”
But President F.C. “Doc” Dugan III, of the Westmoreland County Republican Party argued that the court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act was properly rendered.
“I believe that the Supreme Court surprisingly made a correct decision this time,” Dugan said. “I think it is evident by looking at the statistics that voting injustices of the past have been corrected, locally and nation-wide (read Dugan’s full letter on A7).”
Joan Blackstone, of the Lancaster County Republican Committee said she did not foresee a major impact on her locality from the decision.
“It does seem unnecessary for some of us to pass by one polling place to vote at another when we have no problems that I see in our area,” said Blackstone. “After all this is the 21st century, and many people living here are from all over the country.”
All four registrars in the Northern Neck also anticipated that the change would have little effect except to allow them to move their registration offices and polling locations without having to consult the Dept. of Justice.
Kristin Hicks said the voter registration office in Westmoreland County has never had any requests denied by the Dept. of Justice since she first assumed the role as registrar in 1989.
“It’s not a problem with or without the change,” said Hicks.
Martha Packett, registrar of Richmond County, said her office has “ not had any discriminatory activities or any complaints.”
Packett added that her office has been considering moving a polling place from its current location near Rappahannock Church of Christ due to poor lighting and parking, and would be able to do so now without obtaining preclearance.
“Anytime you have to wait for [the Dept. of Justice] to approve something for 60 days, it certainly would make [the process of moving polling places] quicker,” said Packett.
Susan Jett, registrar of Lancaster County, shared her shock of the Supreme Court striking Section 4b from the Voting Rights Act.
“It’s been in place forever,” said Jett. “I would hope it does nothing negatively to impact the voting and the voting rights of anybody, and I think we’re all in agreement of that.”
Registrar Kathy Goddard foresaw no major issues to Northumberland County as a result of the Supreme Court ruling.
While preclearance no longer applies to all of Virginia, including the Northern Neck, Essex County has not been required to preclear any changes to voting situations with the Dept. of Justice since Dec. 31, 2007.
“We were bailed out,” said Larnie Flannagan, registrar of Essex County. “We had to prove almost line-by-line for the last 10 years that we had people of all races in all the offices of Essex County.”
Flannagan noted that the Dept. of Justice sent to Essex County two attorneys who spoke with approximately 20 members of minorities to ensure that they would have no issue with Essex County bailing out of preclearance coverage.
Flannagan added that Essex County had the largest number of minority population of any county that had bailed out as of 2007.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, Essex County was one of 32 localities that have bailed out of preclearance coverage, including the counties of King George, Middlesex and Hanover.
Statewide, Gov. Bob McDonnell said in an official statement released June 25 that the ruling maintained the portions of the Voting Rights Act that still prohibit discriminatory practices and procedures.
“As Governor, I will ensure that the Commonwealth remains committed to protecting the rights of its citizens and ensuring that every Virginian’s vote counts,” said McDonnell. “Virginia will continue to faithfully comply with the Constitution and the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act.”
In another official statement, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va) said: “The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the validity of the Voting Rights Act preclearance requirement but specify that Congress must grapple anew with the appropriate geographic application of the technique raises serious concerns, particularly with regard to how voting rights will be protected in the interim in places where discrimination still exists.”
Kaine added: “I would advocate that jurisdictions continue to submit voting changes to the Department of Justice for preclearance as a sign to their own constituents that they are committed to ensuring equal voting rights.”
For more information on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, visit http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/intro/intro_b.php.
For information on the Democratic Party of Virginia, visit www.vademocrats.org.
For more information on the Republican Party of Virginia, visit www.rpv.org.
For more information on the NAACP, visit www.naacp.org.
Editor’s note: Rosemary Mahan was contacted for remarks, but was unable to respond prior to press time.