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Hogwash can't hide prejudice at polls

February 19, 2007

November 21, 2005 - Lately, Americans have been led to question the integrity of a few journalists so closely allied with government officials that they appear to participate in the politics of misinformation, misleading the public to satisfy political gains.

One case in point: the questionable relationship between New York Times reporter Judith Miller and former White House staffer I. Scooter Libby. There is some concern that Miller's book and Times reporting helped justify the invasion of Iraq, a war we now know was based on faulty, if not false, intelligence.

These allegations are still under investigation, but their very existence warns Americans that there are some in politics and in journalism who are willing to stretch the truth to achieve their ends.

In this light, I submit the recent commentary of Jim Wooten about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, set to expire in 2007.

Because Georgia and 16 other states have a documented history of voter discrimination, they are required to submit any voting procedure changes to the Justice Department before they can become law. Georgia Republicans resent this requirement and have lined up to oppose Section 5's reauthorization with Rep. Lynn Westmoreland at the helm and columnist Wooten bringing up the rear, all the while slinging unsubstantiated claims.

Section 5 punishes Georgia and the other political subdivisions for the "sins" of forefathers who are long dead, they argue. Have these critics forgotten that the creators of a modern-day poll tax called the photo ID bill are still alive and well and living in Georgia?

And in rural towns throughout America there are still many instances such as those in Lyons, Ga., where an old law limiting candidates for elected office to white male property owners stayed on the books until 1983. Without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, it would be very difficult to legally challenge discriminatory changes in voting practices.

In Georgia, the Justice Department has objected to 80 voting changes since the last Section 5 reauthorization in 1987. Millions of Georgia voters in every corner of the state --- black, rural, elderly, Asian, Latino, disabled, low-income and other vulnerable classes --- have been affected.

The facts are so graphic it appears some critics would rather create evidence than face the truth. Wooten and Westmoreland like to point to the research of University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock to substantiate their claim that Section 5 is obsolete. But a federal court found Bullock was not a credible witness in the 1987 voting rights case McNeil v. City of Springfield, Ill. His opinions were also rejected by the three-judge district court in Edmisten v. Gingles in 1984, and a fellow academic writing in the UCLA Law Review accused him of providing "misleading fantasy statistics" in a voting rights case.

Why would Wooten and Westmoreland so readily lean on evidence provided by a discredited source? Georgians have to answer that question for themselves.

I submit, however, that it takes no courage to toe the party line.

The right to vote is precious. It is the bedrock of American democracy and the most powerful nonviolent tool in our democracy. Don't let misinformation take it away.