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Voting Rights Act’s effects still prompt debate

Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 7:30 a.m. CDT

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MACON, Ga. — Candidacies have been announced, Facebook pages launched, and billboards trumpet the upcoming elections for Macon’s new consolidated government. There’s just one problem.

No one knows when the vote will actually be held.

It’s been in limbo since last month when federal attorneys demanded to know why the vote was scheduled in July rather than November, when the turnout is typically higher.

A cloud of uncertainty hangs over Macon and other communities as the U.S. Supreme Court debates whether places with a history of racial discrimination like Georgia have outgrown the 48-year-old requirement for federal oversight of electoral changes.

And recent developments here and elsewhere in Georgia provide a compelling reminder that the contentious debate over the Voting Rights Act is still resonating across the state.

Last month, a federal judge blocked Fayette County from using its nearly 200-year-old at-large voting system, a practice the NAACP argues has diluted minority voting strength. Frustrated local leaders have vowed to appeal the ruling.

Fresh concerns are also being raised about voting practices in North Georgia communities with swelling Hispanic populations. And the Justice Department is weighing the controversial plan in Fulton County to eliminate a countywide seat held by a black commissioner in favor of a new majority-white district on the county’s northside.

“These are examples there is still a need to take a close look at any voting changes,” said Elaine Lucas, who sits on the Macon City Council and who opposed the earlier election date in her city. “It looks like this is still an epidemic across Georgia.”

To other lawmakers and officials, though, the federal requirements are well-intentioned but outdated mandates that have yielded heavy-handed and misguided government intervention.

“I am praying the Supreme Court strikes this section down,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, the Macon Republican who championed the changes. “It’s a different day in America and in Georgia than when this legislation took effect. It’s a whole different environment that we live in now, and I’m hoping the Supreme Court sees that.”

The Supreme Court’s decision is expected to center on the part of the law called Section 5 that requires state and local governments with a record of discrimination to receive federal approval before making electoral changes.

The Justice Department has wielded those powers frequently in Georgia, blocking redistricting efforts and other election changes here about 180 times since the law was enacted in 1965. Before its passage, poll taxes, literacy tests or other restrictions were commonly used to prevent blacks from voting.

The Supreme Court’s decision won’t likely impact what happens in Fayette County, where the judge’s order could force commissioners to switch to a district voting system.

John E. Jones, head of the local NAACP, said the two-year fight aims to give blacks a “seat at the table.” The county’s five commissioners voted to appeal the ruling and continue a legal battle that has already cost taxpayers at least $300,000.

Steve Brown, chair of Fayette’s commission, said the county isn’t yet big enough to hold district voting and that forging a majority-minority district would require extreme gerrymandering.

“I hated that we ended up having to come to a conclusion through a federal court,” said Brown, adding: “Eventually, we knew we would have district voting. We knew that it was going to happen. We just hate to see it forced.”

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