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Francys Johnson to testify on voting rights

Senate hearing set for Wednesday morning

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Posted: June 24, 2014 8:23 p.m.
Updated: June 24, 2014 8:16 p.m.
Francys Johnson to testify on voting rights

The Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson


The Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson will testify Wednesday before a Senate committee about the importance of restoring portions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, handed down June 25, 2013, the high court struck down much of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That section required several states, including Georgia, to obtain federal preclearance before making changes to voting procedures such as polling places or election dates, as well as redrawing voting districts.

Since then, Georgia has made changes that have served to disenfranchise African-American and other voters, said Johnson, a Statesboro attorney and the president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP. That is a charge Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp strongly denies.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Johnson to testify during a hearing on the bill. Johnson is one of five witnesses from across the country expected to appear before the committee.

The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. and will be webcast live at www.judiciary.senate.gov.

"Georgia is ground zero of voting rights and I look forward to sharing the post-Shelby perspective from the Deep South," Johnson said Monday in a Georgia NAACP news release. "All Americans must ensure that the right to vote, the cornerstone of our democracy, is protected."

Even when Section 5 was in effect, Johnson said, the state tried to suppress minority voting rights. He cited, among other things, legislation passed in 2012 that changed the election date for nonpartisan mayoral and commissioner elections in Augusta-Richmond County from November to July — "a veiled effort," he said, "to dilute minority voting strength." The U.S. Department of Justice concluded that change would disproportionately affect African-American voter turnout.

"In the wake of the Shelby decision, the Georgia secretary of state has announced that the 2014 election for Augusta-Richmond County will be held at the time of the primary rather than the November general election," Johnson said.

In the local elections held May 20 in Augusta, African-American candidates won two of five Augusta Commission seats, and an African-American — state Sen. Hardie Davis — captured 75 percent of the vote for Augusta mayor, according to results posted on the Georgia Secretary of State's website. White candidates won two other commission seats, and a runoff is scheduled for July 22 between a black candidate and a white candidate for the remaining seat.

In a statement issued the day of the Supreme Court decision, Kemp said: "Georgia and the rest of the nation have made tremendous progress in the past 50 years. In recognizing that the current formulation in Section Four of the Voting Rights Act is outdated and obsolete, the Supreme Court validated this progress today. Our Constitution, our bill of Rights and Section Two of the Voting Rights Act prohibit any form of racial discrimination within the democratic process. As Georgia's chief elections official, it is my sacred duty to uphold this."

In the NAACP statement, Johnson said, responding to a letter from Kemp declaring Section 5 preclearance provisions unnecessary: "I don't know what utopia Secretary Kemp lives in but in the real post-Shelby Georgia, we are witnessing the wholesale elimination and changing of polling locations, methods of electing school board, town and city council members, a rush to move to at-large districts, annexations, and other changes to early voting that have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on basis of race and/or ethnicity."

Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.

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