Differing views in GOP on voting rights case

WASHINGTON — The GOP’s struggle over its future and the party’s fitful steps to attract minorities are on full display in the differing responses of Republican governors to a major Supreme Court case on voting rights.

The court will hear arguments April 29 about whether federal oversight of election procedures should continue in 16 states, mainly in the South, with a history of preventing blacks, Hispanics and other minorities from voting.

In 2006, as Republicans sought to improve their standing with minorities in advance of congressional elections, the GOP-controlled Congress extended for 25 years the Voting Rights Act provision that says the Justice Department must approve any changes in how elections are conducted. Republican President George W. Bush signed the extension into law.

But some Republicans said the extension was not merited and that some states were being punished for their racist past. A legal challenge has made its way to the high court.

GOP Govs. Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Bob Riley of Alabama have asserted in court filings that the continued obligation of their states to get advance approval for all changes involving elections is unnecessary and expensive in view of significant progress they have made to overcome blatant and often brutal discrimination against blacks.

Perdue pointed out that President Barack Obama did better in Georgia than did Democratic nominees John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000.

“Congress’ insistence that Georgia has ‘a continuing legacy of racism’… is nonsensical when an African-American candidate for president receives a greater percentage of the vote than his white predecessor candidates,” Perdue said.

Riley said blacks in Alabama register to vote and cast ballots in proportions similar to whites and that black lawmakers make up about one-quarter of the Legislature, reflecting the state’s black population. In November’s election, however, Obama attracted the votes of only about 10 percent of white Alabamans; that was his worst showing among white voters anywhere.

Both Perdue and Riley face term limits that prevent them from running for re-election in 2010.

Other Republican governors in states covered by the advance approval provision of the Voting Rights Act — including Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — are taking a different approach. They essentially are saying nothing about the case even as Democratic attorneys general in those states have said elimination of the provision “would undermine the progress that has been made under the Voting Rights Act.”

About one-third of Mississippi’s residents are black. Barbour said he is not seeking to change his state’s status under the Voting Rights Act. Obama captured about 11 percent of the white vote there last year, according to exit polls.

“I’ve said for 25 years, I’ve testified in front of Congress, that the Voting Rights Act ought to apply to every state. Every jurisdiction ought to be covered,” Barbour said. Barbour also is term-limited, but has not foreclosed running for another office.

Jindal, widely considered a potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate, issued a brief statement through a spokesman. “The governor has not reviewed this case or the briefs, but he has confidence in the attorney general to do the right thing for the people of Louisiana,” spokesman Kyle Plotkin said.

Emory University political science professor Merle Black said southern Republican politicians have every incentive to say nothing.

“If they come out against it, then their hope of getting any African-American votes in the future is even worse than it is now,” Black said. “If you don’t mention it, it’s the status quo, and they’ve been able to win with the status quo.”

All or part of three other Southern states with Republican governors must submit election changes. State officials in Florida, South Carolina and Texas have taken no position in the Supreme Court case, which comes from the Austin, Texas-area.

Outside the South, the attorneys general in Arizona and California are on record endorsing the voting rights law. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position about the case, a spokeswoman said.

In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer supports the provision, known as Section 5. “She has not voiced a problem with Section 5,” said Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman. “She’s very familiar with it.”

Brewer was the state’s top elections official as the elected Arizona secretary of state before she became governor Jan. 20 when Democrat Janet Napolitano resigned after the Senate confirmed her to be Obama’s homeland security secretary.

Eight states are covered in their entirety under the provision: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. In Virginia, all but 15 cities and counties must comply with the measure.

Parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota also need permission to make voting changes.

The Associated Press