After a key part of Voting Rights Act was voided, local governments began changing the rules.
SHELBY, N.C. – When Alan Langley, a Republican member of the local elections board here, explains a new proposal to consolidate five voting precincts into two, it sounds procedural and well-meaning: He speaks of convenient parking and wheelchair access at the proposed polling places, and of saving lots of money.
Those precincts, however, are rich with black voters who generally vote Democratic. And when the Rev. Dante Murphy, the president of the Cleveland County NAACP chapter, discusses the plan, he talks of “disenfranchisement” and “conspiracy.”
“We know,” Murphy said, “that this is part of a bigger trend — a movement to suppress people’s right to vote.”
The bitter disagreement in this city of 20,000 is part of a broader voting rights battle charged by race and partisan politics that is playing out in a number of communities, many of them Southern, where changes to election laws no longer require advance approval from the federal government after a year-old Supreme Court ruling voided a key section of the Voting Rights Act.
Voting rights advocates fear that these local changes — combined with a number of new state laws restricting ballot access and requiring voters to show picture IDs — amount to a concerted effort to reduce voting by minority groups.
Conservatives say that the laws ensure against voter fraud, and in some cases are more cost-efficient.
In places affected by the Supreme Court decision, the overt racism of the 1960s is largely a thing of the past: What often lingers is a racial mistrust that can make the moving of a polling place from a fellowship hall to a public park seem innocent to some, sinister to others.
“It’s amazing what can prevail in the minds of two people, where they can see the same thing and think completely differently about it,” Murphy said.
The court’s 5-4 ruling in June 2013 eliminated the requirement, known as “preclearance,” for nine states and numerous counties, including Cleveland County, that had been singled out under the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to root out the Jim Crow chicanery that denied the franchise to blacks in the Southern states and elsewhere.
“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
The precinct changes here will be decided Tuesday by the Cleveland County Board of Elections, an all-white body made up of two Republicans and one Democrat. According to Langley and Dayna Causby of the board, one of the current polling places — Putnam Baptist Church — will soon be unavailable because it is undergoing renovations.
Francis De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative North Carolina think tank, said it was about time that the federal government returned decisionmaking to the local level. Forty of North Carolina’s 100 counties had been required to submit election changes for preclearance.
Voting rights advocates are less trusting, as are, generally, Democrats, whose success in states like North Carolina is dependent on ensuring high black voter turnout.
Advocates say it is difficult to monitor, let alone quantify, all of the local election law changes in the areas freed from government review, since the Justice Department is no longer notified of the changes they make.
But a number of cases around the South have made news. In Pasadena, Texas, voters in November narrowly approved a City Council redistricting plan that critics said diluted the political power of Latinos.
Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in Augusta, Ga., over a plan that moved mayoral and City Council elections from November to May, concerned that black voters would be less likely to go to the polls at the later date. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge in May.