Alabama officials react to Supreme Court's voting rights ruling
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jun 25, 2013 | 3608 views |  0 comments | 105 105 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This file photo shows people waiting outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Monday as key decisions are expected to be announced. The Supreme Court said Tuesday that a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced until Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and localities require close federal monitoring of elections. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
This file photo shows people waiting outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Monday as key decisions are expected to be announced. The Supreme Court said Tuesday that a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced until Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and localities require close federal monitoring of elections. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
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When state Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, first heard about the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the Voting Rights Act, she couldn't believe it.

"Oh, no, no, no," said Boyd, the only African-American in Calhoun County's legislative delegation. "Are you for real?"

Boyd was among local leaders Tuesday who were struggling to understand the full implications of the court's decision on the Voting Rights Act — a ruling that seems poised to change Alabama's political landscape.

Congress passed the act in 1965 to end discriminatory voting practices in Deep South states, where for decades, local governments had blocked voting by African-Americans through poll taxes and other barriers. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Alabama has been required to seek federal approval of most changes to its voting laws, to ensure that racial bias doesn't creep back into the system.

Several other Southeastern states and some counties outside the South faced the same requirement, but Alabama's Shelby County took the matter to court, arguing that that approval process, known as "preclearance," was no longer needed.

The high court on Tuesday upheld the preclearance requirement, but threw out the law's system for determining which states require preclearance. Within three hours of the ruling, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the ruling seems to mean Alabama's voting changes are no longer subject to federal review.

"At this time, our initial conclusion is that Alabama is no longer subject to the preclearance requirements," Strange said in a press release.

In a statement released Tuesday, Secretary of State Beth Chapman noted that states are still banned from implementing discriminatory voting practices, though that ban would be enforced through the courts rather than pre-approval by the Justice Department.

The state currently has at least one major voting law — a requirement that voters produce a photo ID at the polls — awaiting preclearance. The Star's attempts to reach officials in Chapman's office for comment on that matter were unsuccessful.

Local officials are still unsure exactly what the ruling means for Calhoun County. County administrator Ken Joiner said he needed to consult with county attorney Tom Sowa for more insight on the matter. Attempts to reach Sowa were not successful Tuesday.

Joiner said he didn't have an estimate of how much money the county spent per year on preclearance for changes to the voting process.

"There's no way to tell," he said. "You'd have to look at all the time spent on it, personnel-wise. But it does cost money, and it's not a small amount."

Republican leaders in Alabama praised the court's ruling as a decision that would save Alabama time and money, and one that reflected change in the racial dynamic of the South.

"Today's ruling is historic," said Gov. Robert Bentley in a press release Tuesday. "It reflects how conditions have improved since 1965."

Some of Alabama's black legislators disagree, saying that the lack of preclearance would lead to the state's Republican majority slowly squeezing black Democrats out of elected office.

"We have gone back almost half a century with this decision," Boyd said. "This turns back principles that people have fought and died for."

Alabama was one of the primary battlegrounds in the push for the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. The famous Selma-to-Montgomery march, and local authorities' violence against marchers on "Bloody Sunday" in 1965, were part of that struggle.

Tuesday's court ruling could set the stage for another political struggle along similar regional lines. The court left it to Congress to establish a new definition of which states would require federal approval of changes to their voting procedures.

What definition, if any, will get Congressional approval is still unknown. The Star's attempts to reach eight of the nine members of Alabama's Congressional delegation for comment on a possible new definition were unsuccessful Tuesday.

In a statement emailed to The Star, Sen. Jeff Sessions said the court’s decision “implies that the U.S. Congress should only pass laws that apply uniformly throughout the nation.”

Strange, the state attorney general, said in his press release that he hoped any new definition would exclude Alabama from federal monitoring.

Civil rights leaders said Tuesday they were gearing up for a campaign to sway Congress to restore preclearance in most of the affected states.

"This is the most destructive decision the Supreme Court has rendered in 50 years," said Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma. Sanders said he and civil rights organizers from across the country had been discussing political actions that could call attention to the issue. He said those plans were not finalized, but could include a new march from Selma to Montgomery.

Congress is now divided between a Republican-controlled House and a Senate run by Democrats, which could make passage of new legislation difficult. Sanders said he wasn't deterred, noting that the Voting Rights Act seemed like a long shot before it was passed.

"There are some nuts that are tough to crack," he said. "But we've got to take a crack at this one."

Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.
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Alabama officials react to Supreme Court's voting rights ruling by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com

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