The track record of Georgia, and several other states, on voting rights is reason enough for Congress to restore protections of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by a Supreme Court decision last year, according to the Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson.
“The history of voting rights in Georgia can best be categorized as promises made, promises broken; promises remade, promises broken; promises made and now, promises only partially realized,” said Johnson, a Statesboro lawyer and the president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
“I come to this august committee,” he continued, “with a view from rural communities like Sylvania, Statesboro and Sylvester, and cities like Augusta, Albany and Atlanta. And it is clear to me I am the great beneficiary of the progress that we’ve made, great strides we’ve made as a country. There is still much to be done.”
On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying that the formulas used to determine which jurisdictions needed federal preclearance for changes in polling places, voting districts and election dates were outdated. The decision in the case, Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder, was 5-4.
The hearing was held Wednesday, which U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, purposely scheduled for the one-year anniversary of the decision. He introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which seeks to update those parts of the original Voting Rights Act the high court said were outdated. Among other things, the bill would require jurisdictions that had three or more voting rights violations in the last 15 years, or one or more violations in jurisdictions with persistently low minority turnout during the last 15 years, to be subject to federal preclearance requirements.
Before that decision, Johnson said, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked an attempt to reassign the Randolph County, Georgia, Board of Education chairman, who was African-American, from a district that was 70 percent black to one that was 70 percent white. That decision, Johnson said, was made by an all-white Board of Registrars.
“They voted to run that African-American out of office,” Johnson told the Senate committee.
Since the Shelby County decision, Johnson cited an attempt by Athens to eliminate nearly half of its 24 polling places and replace them with two early voting centers, both located in police stations.
“Let this committee know that police in Georgia for many, many Georgians — even in my generation — don’t represent an effort to protect and serve. They represent an effort to intimidate,” Johnson said. “The argument was it would save money.”
He also cited an attempt by lawmakers to shorten Georgia’s early voting period from 21 days to six days, which legislators argued would save cities and counties $3,400 on average.
“Given the fact that we spend $45,000 a week keeping soldiers abroad to fight for democracy, I think $3,400 is a small investment to pay,” Johnson said. “African-Americans are 26 times more likely to vote in early voting, and I think those who proposed that bill knew it.”
Johnson was one of five witnesses to testify before the Senate committee Wednesday. Two others argued in favor of the Voting Rights Amendment Act: Texas state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Two argued against the legislation: Michael Carvin, a partner in the Washington law firm Jones Day, and Dr. Abigail Thernstrom, an adjunct scholar with the Washington think tank American Enterprise Institute.
Those opposed to amending the Voting Rights Act say that, even with the high court decision, the law as written does allow people to fight for their rights if they feel they have been denied. They also argued that only a few states would be subject to the preclearance provisions, which they say denies the progress that has been made in areas that had long records of disenfranchising minority voters.
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.