LLOYD GRAY: Progress, the past and Section 5

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state – more than New York, with six and a half times as many people, or California, with 12 times more.
This is the strongest argument Mississippi has for coming out from under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires this state – along with eight others, mostly in the South, and portions of another six with a history of racial discrimination in voting – to submit any changes in election law or procedures to Washington for approval.
It’s a cumbersome process, whether it involves something as complex as redrawing districts for boards of supervisors, city boards, legislators or other elective bodies, or merely moving a polling place from one location to another. These and other voting-related changes must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington.
For the most part, legal advice given elected officials through the years has held up and the great majority of such plan are approved. We’ll know eventually whether that’s the case with the voter identification amendment adopted by voters in 2011, which is still awaiting Justice Department clearance.
In spite of this evidence of good faith, Mississippi because of its history of discrimination remains, under the Voting Rights law, a pariah of sorts, still having to go through hoops most other states don’t. Shelby County, Ala., in a state similarly situated, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to lift that special burden and end enforcement of Section 5.
There is logic to the request. How long will states that discriminated be held to special account for it, even with so much evidence of change? Isn’t that making them less than equal partners among the states long after it’s justified?
The counterpoint to that argument is that the passage and subsequent court interpretation of the Voting Rights Act is the primary reason so much progress has been made. By vigilantly ensuring that Mississippi (and other) jurisdictions don’t gerrymander voting districts to dilute black voting strength, the act and its enforcement have been responsible for the election of so many black officials. Given voting patterns that are still pretty race-specific – with a few notable exceptions – elimination of federal review might well result in a significantly reduced minority representation among Mississippi elected officials.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most important legislation of the civil rights era, and it came with the blood of martyrs. It transformed Mississippi and the South. The question now being debated is whether the transformation can endure without a key portion of that act.
But there’s another side to the progress that has been made. Efforts to ensure large numbers of black-majority electoral districts, while increasing the number of African-Americans holding office, have also reduced the impact of black voters in other districts. A white official, for example, who has a 35 to 40 percent black constituency will be more attuned to their concerns than in one with, say, 15 or 20 percent. There are fewer such “diverse” districts now, and far more with heavy majorities of one race or the other. That tends to have a racially polarizing effect on the conduct of public business.
Polarization by race and party – in Mississippi, more than most states, the two are interconnected – is the downside of the Voting Rights Act’s concern for not diluting black voting strength.
Most Mississippians long for the day when we can get beyond race in politics, but differences of opinion persist as to how near that day is. If the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5, we could well find out.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.