The voting rights decision in North Carolina
The U.S. Supreme Court has been the big news this week, with landmark 5-4 divided rulings. Their verdict on the Voting Rights Act sent reverberations across the South, indeed the entire nation, saying the mostly Southern states covered under the act no longer have to get pre-clearance from the US Department of Justice before making election changes.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act passed by President Lyndon Johnson addressed serious election problems of that era. It was needed and necessary to ensure minorities had access in states where Jim Crow laws previously prevented them from voting. The law worked in greatly reducing racial inequities. The court decision correctly stated that changes have occurred in the 40 years since the 1970s revision of the act and the data used in Justice Department pre-clearance decisions is now outdated.
As expected, liberals and minorities are incensed at this decision, claiming that the progress made will be reversed and the rights of minorities will once again be violated. But a growing number, including North Carolina’s first African American Speaker of the House, Dan Blue, agree with the court it is time for Congress to revise modern-day election practices that would justify a requirement of pre-clearance because the act is now being used legally to disadvantage minorities.
In order to ensure African Americans had not only access to vote, but also the ability to elect minorities to public office, the act sanctioned the drawing of special “majority minority” voting districts. Witness North Carolina’s “ink blot” 12th Congressional District, created with those weird-shaped lines to include sufficiently large numbers of minorities and virtually guaranteeing a minority would win.
But politicians being politicians, it wasn’t long before they figured out how they could comply with the law while making it work to their own political advantage. Democrats started this in most areas in the South, however the latest Republican redistricting in North Carolina took this practice to almost laughable levels, packing some districts with far more minorities than necessary to ensure minority victories, carving up cities, neighborhoods, even streets in neighborhoods, with high concentrations of one race, thereby ensuring one party or one race would win in other districts.
This type of gerrymandering is a blatant violation of the intent, if not the legality of the Voting Rights Act and tramples all over North Carolina’s constitutional mandate that whole counties be kept within the same voting districts if at all possible. This latest court ruling provides our state more freedom in election changes but we hope our legislature will not respond by undoing the progress we’ve made. If so, North Carolina is likely find itself back in court charged with voting rights violations and, quite possibly, again being forced to follow strict federal mandates.
The 2008 presidential election and a history of statewide elections since the 1980s have demonstrated that North Carolinians are willing to vote for and select minority candidates, so the court was right in saying that changing times require that concerns first addressed in the Voting Rights Act need revision, not just in the South but in all states. We must remain vigilant to ensure all races have equal opportunity to vote and elect candidates in order that a leveled playing field will remain level.
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a discussion of N.C. issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.