Voting Rights|Under a Microscope

Published 11:21 pm Sunday, May 31, 2009

Special to the Daily News

Beaufort County is among 40 North Carolina counties and 15 states with a history of racial discrimination in elections that are subject to Section 5 of the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Section 5, commonly called the act’s “preclearance” provision, requires the county to obtain federal approval before changing election laws.
Now, the United States Supreme Court is reviewing a Texas case involving Section 5 that some think could have far-reaching ramifications for Beaufort County and other jurisdictions covered by the act.
In 1991, Floyd Brothers was elected mayor of Washington after serving some 10 years on the Washington City Council, the first African-American to serve in the city’s highest office.
Under his leadership, Washington earned an All-America City award. But 27 years earlier when Brothers and his wife, Muriel, tried to vote in North Carolina, they had to prove that they could read before they were allowed to cast their ballots.
The poll worker asked Brothers, a school teacher, to read the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, he recently recalled.
“I just looked at her and said that I didn’t need to read it because I could recite it,” he said. “So she gave me something else to read.”
Beaufort County Commissioner Ed Booth did not experience such harassment when he voted but remembers the extensive process imposed upon his grandmother when she tried to vote in the 1960s.
“I remember my grandmother running into all sorts of barriers and having to provide several different types of identification.”
That’s why Floyd and Muriel Brothers, Booth and others will watch next month when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in a historic case. The justices could overturn a provision in the 44-year-old National Voting Rights Act of 1965 that guarantees minorities access to the voting booth.
Some people, such as County Commissioner Hood Richardson, believe it’s time Beaufort County and other governments covered by the act are released from “the last vestiges of Reconstruction.”
Others, such as Muriel Brothers, worry that the high court could turn the clock back on decades of progress by minority voters and minority candidates.
“It’s sad that in this day and age we have to write down rules,” she said. “It’s difficult to see the necessity of the Voting Rights Act until you experience the humility and degradation that some of us had to live through.”
Widely considered a landmark in civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, often used by poll workers throughout the South, that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of blacks.
A study by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that voter registration rates for blacks in North Carolina increased by about 12 percent in the 23 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act.
And a recent Appalachian State University study showed that blacks in the 40 North Carolina counties covered by the act have made significant gains in registering voters and electing black officials over minorities in those counties not covered by the act.
But a case before the U.S. Supreme Court involves Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, also known as preclearance, which covers 40 counties in North Carolina — mostly in the northeast and near Charlotte — 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 changes can take effect. It covers anything from a change in a polling place to changes in the method of electing county commissioners.
Section 5 is being challenged by the Northwest Austin Municipal District Number One, informally known as Canyon Creek, a small development in Austin, Texas where there were no houses or voters until the 1980s.
When Canyon Creek’s board of directors wanted to change a polling place, they discovered that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required them to get federal preclearance for the change, at a cost of about $230 to the district.
A bailout provision in the Voting Rights Act for localities that can prove 10-year compliance applies only to states and counties, so the lower courts have ruled that Canyon Creek would have to get Travis County, where it is located, to seek a bailout. But Travis County doesn’t want to bail out of the Voting Rights Act — setting up the case that is now before the high court.
North Carolina, Mississippi, Arizona, California and New York — all covered by the Voting Rights Act in whole or in part — have filed briefs with the court urging the justices to uphold the law. Georgia and Alabama have weighed in opposing it.
A decision by the high court should come by the end of June.
Court watchers say the Supreme Court could issue a broad ruling that strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act or issue a more narrow ruling that expands the bailout provisions of the act.
“Some of the best legal minds in the country are thinking of this case,” said Carmine Scavo, assistant professor of political science at East Carolina University. “If (Section 5) were declared unconstitutional, it would have a tremendous effect on minorities. It would also have a tremendous effect on counties and municipalities covered by the provision.”
Section 5 not only protects minority voting strength, he said in a recent interview, it also helps protect local governments from lawsuits over election changes. By obtaining U.S. Justice Department approval for elections changes, local governments, in effect, shield themselves from voting rights lawsuits, he said.
Beaufort County’s most recent encounter with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act occurred just before the November 2008 General Election, when the county Board of Elections had to change the polling place for Gilead Precinct, which includes Cypress Landing. The change was granted under an emergency provision of the act, according to Kellie Harris Hopkins.
“Anything we change has to be precleared,” she said.
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, she said.
“It does require work,” she said. “But I’ve done it so much it’s kind of second nature.”
The Justice Department has never turned down a preclearance request in the 10 years Harris Hopkins has served as Beaufort County elections director, she said.
Some local officials said they would welcome the overturn of Section 5.
“I’m not in favor of preclearance,” said County Commissioner Stan Deatherage. “I have no problems with all people being represented, but there are other ways of doing it.”
Commissioner Hood Richardson said Section 5 is “onerous” on the counties covered by the prevision and an unnecessary penalty imposed on Beaufort County by the federal government.
Others wonder, in light of the recent election of the nation’s first black president, if racism is as prevalent in local elections as it once was and if federal oversight is still needed to protect minority interests.
“I would hope that it is not needed,” said County Commissioner Robert Cayton. “My hope is that Beaufort County has grown enough that it is not needed … but I don’t know.”
Others say that despite the election of a black president, minority voters in Beaufort County still need the protection afforded by the Voting Rights Act and preclearance, in particular.
“It’s almost embarrassing to admit that the United States is still that way, but we’ve got a long way to go, even with a black president,” said David L. Moore, president and chief executive officer of Metropolitan House and CDC, Inc.
In the late 1980s, Moore led a group of citizens that sued Beaufort County for its at-large election of county commissioners. The lawsuit argued that the election system discriminated against blacks and historically prevented the election of any African-American candidates to the board.
The lawsuit resulted in changes in county commissioner elections, led to the election of the first black commissioners and, eventually, to a Republican majority on the board.
Moore said that despite these gains, there is still strong evidence of racial bias in Beaufort County voting patterns.
“Beaufort County has never elected more than two blacks to the county Board of Commissioners,” he said. “The Republican Party has just about the same number of voters in Beaufort County as blacks, yet Republicans have elected four members to the county board.
“Without some type of Voting Rights Act, you will see the disappearance of the minority voice in Beaufort County, and it will happen almost overnight.”