JONESBORO As the initial shock of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that several states — including Georgia — no longer need federal pre-clerance on voting and election matters, local officials are now looking to what comes next.
Although Gov. Nathan Deal and the state Republican Party applauded the decision handed down Tuesday by the court to strike a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, several local officials have voiced their objections.
And they are now turning their attention to Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
“I do expect to see some changes come out of the [state] Capitol as a result of this decision,” said Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner. “I would not be surprised if we see some form of legislation next year, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
State Rep. Valencia Stovall (D-Ellenwood) said, “I will be on the watch for legislation being introduced to ensure it is fair for all voters.”
There are many ways in which the Voting Rights Act affected election issues in Georgia. The law targeted nine mostly southern states that had a history of racial discrimination in election matters. As a result of its passage at the height of the Civil Rights movement, affected states and the communities within them had to receive federal approval for laws, redistricting maps and referendums.
“This decision insults the memory of people like Medgar Evers, who sacrificed their time and lives to secure the right to vote,” said Clayton County NAACP President Synamon Baldwin. “The constitution is incredibly clear that congress has the authority to ensure no voter is denied to the right to vote.”
It remains to be seen what the impact of the court’s decision will look like in Clayton County.
On the same day that the court struck down the pre-clerance requirement, Morrow City Manager Jeff Eady boasted to the city council that they had just received permission from the Department of Justice to proceed with a Sunday alcohol sales referendum in November.
Baldwin said the local NAACP chapter will contact members of the Clayton County legislative delegation and attend meetings of the county elections board to track any proposed changes to local and state elections laws.
Officials said the provisions of the Voting Rights Act are still needed, despite the court’s majority opinion that “things have changed dramatically.”
But Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) quickly contested that opinion in a statement released shortly after the decision was announced.
“The record clearly demonstrates numerous attempts to impede voting rights still exist, and it does not matter that those attempts are not as ‘pervasive, widespread or rampant’ as they were in 1965,” said Lewis in a statement released shortly after the decision was announced. “One instance of discrimination is too much in a democracy.”
Those sentiments echo the dissenting opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She wrote, “Particularly effective is the VRA’s requirement of federal pre-clerance for all changes to voting laws in the regions of the country with the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights.”
Lewis expressed concerns about what the future holds for voting rights legislation. His district includes the northern half of Clayton County, including the cities of Forest Park, Lake City and Morrow. He is also a veteran of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and was at the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala., that is credited with prompting Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
The longtime congressman called the court’s decision a “dagger into the heart” of the Act.
“I am deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken,” said Lewis. “I call upon the members of this body to do what is right to insure free and fair access to the ballot box in this country.”
Turner said he would like to see the pre-clearance requirement return, but he said it should be on a broader scale.
“Discrimination does still exist in a lot of places and, personally, I feel like all 50 states should have to seek pre-clearance to ensure uniformity of practices and standards,” said Turner.
Stovall said voter education and registration will become more important. She said voter participation will need to be addressed in the county, where turnout for elections may struggle to reach 20 percent in non-presidential election years.
“We have the task even more of educating voters that it's not enough to just be registered but it's important to cast their ballots,” Stovall said. “The low voter turnout statistics has to be reversed starting in Clayton County. When more voters are informed, then better representation is the result.”