Justices must tread carefully as they review Voting Rights Act

Published 11:28 pm Sunday, May 31, 2009

By Staff
As you read in today’s Daily News, the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a case that involves Section 5 of the 1965 National Voting Rights Act.
Section 5, also know as “preclearance,” covers 40 counties in North Carolina and 15 other states with a history of racial discrimination in elections.
It requires Beaufort County and the other governments cited in the section to obtain federal approval before any election law change may take effect. It covers everything from a change in a polling place to changes in the method of electing county commissioners.
Section 5 is being challenged by a small voting district is Austin, Texas, that wants to change a polling place but has discovered it must get preclearance before doing so. A bailout provision in the Voting Rights Act allows counties and states that can prove 10-year compliance to avoid preclearance mandates.
But in a complicated set of circumstances, the district — informally known as Canyon Creek — must have the county it is in seek the bailout provision. The county, however, doesn’t want to bail out of Section 5, which has set up the current case before the Supreme Court.
It is widely speculated that the court could strike down Section 5 or expand the bailout provisions of the act.
Local residents and officials offer differing opinions on preclearance and whether the county has moved forward enough to now abandon it.
Some argue that overturning the section will disenfranchise minority voters, others say preclearance is archaic and should be declared unconstitutional.
According to Beaufort County Director of Elections Kellie Harris Hopkins, the preclearance process generally takes about 60 days and requires elections officials to obtain approval from the State Board of Elections before submitting an application to the U.S. Justice Department for the change.
The Justice Department has never turned down a preclearance request in the 10 years Hopkins has held her position.
The effects of the Supreme Court decision, should it decide to strike down Section 5 or significantly alter it, are difficult to predict. But we know this: Some Beaufort County citizens believe racism still exists in our area and fear losing representation should Section 5 be abandoned.
We urge the Supreme Court to review the case knowing these fears are still present here and probably in other North Carolina counties. The justices must ensure that voting rights will not be hampered even if they strike down the section.