Scarlet Letter or Equality Insurance?

The 1965 Voting Rights Act debate in Georgia

The redistricting machine is still in motion.  Yet, as the legislature works to pass the maps drawn up in the August special session, it finds itself up against an old familiar roadblock: a certain clause of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  This clause requires Georgia to obtain a “pre-clearance” from the Federal government before it can make any changes to an election map, and, frustrated by it for what is not the first time, the state has filed a lawsuit that challenges its constitutionality.

The Voting Rights Act, signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, prohibits discriminatory voting practices.  Meant to address the commonly used practices that led to the widespread disenfranchisement of minority voters, the act prohibits the use of any “qualification or prerequisite” for voting, such as literacy tests or poll taxes.  The clause in question today lists Georgia as one of nine states designated as “covered jurisdictions,” meaning states that have a history of using these discriminatory practices.  Under Section 5 of the Act, nine states are required to get approval by the Department of Justice prior to making a change to any electoral map in a process known as “pre-clearance.”

Georgia Public Broadcasting recently published an article looking at both sides of the issue in Georgia.

State Attorney General Sam Olens feels that this clause is based on a state of affairs that no longer exists, and has compared the “covered jurisdiction” status to a scarlet letter and questioned whether it is fair for these “nine states [to] be treated differently than other states.” Congressman Lynn Westmoreland coined the scarlet letter analogy in 2006 saying “Congress is declaring from on high that states with voting problems 40 years ago can simply never be forgiven. That Georgians must eternally wear the scarlet letter because of the actions of their grandparents and great-grandparents. … We have repented and we have reformed.”  In an interview, Olens reminded readers that the state challenged the same clause during the redistricting process in 2000 and asks again for it to be reconsidered.

But not everyone agrees that Georgia has outgrown its bad habits. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams told GPB in an interview, “Georgia continues to evidence examples of that, not the least of which we believe are the current maps they are submitting, which re-segregate the state of Georgia, polarize communities of color and isolate them into enclaves.” The Southern Political Report notes that, “… the Democrats charge that Republican lawmakers packed black voters into minority-majority districts in order to “bleach” surrounding districts and make them more likely to elect a Republican. This reduces the number of districts that have a substantial minority of black voters, known as ‘black influence districts,’ which give black voters a chance of electing a candidate more to their liking, i.e., a Democrat.”

Do you agree? Disagree? What should we do regarding the Voting Rights Act? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!


Written by Common Cause Georgia Associate: Aryn Phillips

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