Speakers urge renewal of Voting Rights Act

by Amy Kingsley

The right to vote will be threatened for some Americans if Congress fails to renew sections of the Voting Rights Act protecting black suffrage, witnesses testified Nov. 14 before a panel of civil rights leaders.

The panel, which was organized by the UNC Center for Civil Rights and Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, met in NC A&T University’s Dudley Hall. Most of the speakers represented National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapters from around the state. Organizers intended to gather evidence throughout the course of the hearing that will be presented to Congress.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to reinforce black suffrage granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. The law was last amended in 1982, and is up for reauthorization in 2007. Those who spoke before the panel marshaled evidence ranging from statistics to experiences of voter intimidation to explain why the law is still necessary.

‘“The Voting Rights Act has really been one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation,’” said Julius Chambers, a prominent North Carolina civil rights lawyer who presided over the hearings. ‘“Because of that act we have had a number of people who were previously denied access, vote and be elected to public office.’”

Although the act covers all of South Carolina, only 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties can claim its protections. Section 5, Section 203 and portions of Sections 6-9 are specifically set to expire in 2007.

Section 5 stipulates that covered jurisdictions must submit proposed changes to voting laws or procedures to the US Department of Justice for approval. Section 203 provides for language assistance at the polls for voters of limited English proficiency and the portions of Sections 6-9 allow federal monitors.

The effects of racial polarization, where voters choose candidates based solely on race, has also been mitigated by Section 2 of the act, according to many of the witnesses. Minorities running at-large in racially polarized districts often struggle for election, creating a situation where minority groups are unrepresented, panelists said. Section 2 allows covered counties to create minority-majority districts in order to win representation.

‘“When we were a 48-52 percent minority, we only had one African-American county commissioner elected at-large,’” said Bobbie Taylor, president of the Caswell County NAACP. ‘“Now we have five districts and two at-large and we have had seven African Americans elected to county commission and seven served on school board.’”

Despite the progress, the county experienced problems in the last election. Taylor lobbied to have one precinct moved out of a dangerous location and reported some candidates who were allowed to campaign too close to the polls. A precinct judge locked out monitors sent to observe the election, Taylor said.

Lawyer Romulus Murphy, an expert on state enforcement of the Voting Rights Act serving on the panel, raised an issue that has affected Caswell County districting.

‘“We have a significant prison population,’” Murphy said. ‘“Some rural areas will use those numbers to get a district, but of course prisoners are not voting. If you live in a county with a large prison population, you have to look at how the numbers are being used.’”

In counties with small or geographically diverse black populations, voters can concentrate their votes for at-large candidates by only voting for one. This is called a single-shot vote.

Panelists and witnesses testified about the necessity of Section 5 in a state where race often plays a larger role than party affiliation in determining who is elected. One example is Tarboro, a town consisting of 86 percent black residents that voted 89 percent for Harvey Gantt in his 1996 bid for US Senate.

Across the county, 462 white Democrats voted for Gantt’s Republican opponent Jesse Helms, while he did not earn even that many votes in the precinct. Bob Hall, the research director at Democracy North Carolina, used those vote tallies to show that white Democrats were more likely to vote for the white Helms than their party’s black candidate.

‘“Racial polarization is still a large part of electoral districting in North Carolina,’” said Bob Hunter. ‘“As long as that is there you need Section 5 to make sure that incumbents don’t shore up their margin at the expense of minority voters.’”

Hall followed Hunter’s presentation with a series of statistics about provisional ballots. Blacks accounted for 19 percent of total voters but 36 percent of provisional ballots. Eight thousand provisional ballots were lost in North Carolina in 2004, Hall said. Those lost ballots weakened the impact of the black vote because of that community’s greater use of them.

Instances of voter intimidation varied from blacks not feeling welcome or able to ask for help to outright hostility from elected officials. In Rowan County, the Board of Election threatened to prosecute any felon still on parole who tried to register to vote, said Melinda Williams, president of the county’s branch of the NAACP.

Some of those serving on the panel, such as Judge James Wynn and NC Rep. Earl Jones (D-Greensboro), directly benefited from the Voting Rights Act. Witnesses and panelists both testified that things have changed since the civil rights era during which the bill was passed. But embedded attitudes still necessitate extension of the legislation, panelists said.

‘“Has the goodness of the community risen to a level where you don’t need that protection?’” asked Chambers about Caswell County.

‘“No, I don’t see that goodness at all,’” Taylor replied.

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