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Rep. John Lewis Responds to Misinformation About VRA

June 27, 2006
Press Release

June 27, 2006 - Does Rep. Westmoreland know American history?

"My words have been used out of context in a misleading manner to justify abolition of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by Rep. Westmoreland and other enemies of the VRA in the House and Senate. I said during my 2001 court testimony that there has been a transformation in America, and that statement is obviously true to anyone who is familiar with American civil rights history. America is vastly different today than it was just 40 years ago, when people lost their jobs, their farms, and their very lives just for attempting to register to vote. Overt brutality is no longer an accepted response to the voter registration of minority citizens. People no longer meet fire hoses, state troopers and attack dogs when they go to government offices to register to vote today. The cessation of this kind of hostility represents a significant change in the climate and very nature of America, but it does not indicate that voting discrimination in this country has been eliminated. I have never said, nor can any objective party who looks at the evidence say, that voting discrimination no longer exists in America today.

"Beyond that, the philosophy of non-violent resistance is fundamentally optimistic. The transformation that I have witnessed convinces me that we are involved in an on-going, evolutionary process of preparing to lay down the burden of race in America, but you cannot find one word from me that suggests the job is done. Freedom is not free. It is not a state; it is an act, and it requires a series of continuous, on-going actions to ensure our unbroken path toward freedom as a nation. Our progress should be an encouragement to continue down the road to equal justice in America, not to turn back the clock.

Let the Opponents of Section 5 Respond to the Evidence

The fact is that there have been over 1000 objections issued by the Justice Department since the last reauthorization of Section 5 in 1982. The evidence is so overwhelming that the Judiciary Committee voted 33 to 1, both Republicans and Democrats, in favor of Section 5 reauthorization. Furthermore, they felt Section 5 was still such a pertinent remedy to current voting discrimination problems that they returned that section to its original power in the H.R. 9 reauthorization bill, since it had been weakened by recent judicial decisions.

The opponents to Section 5 must be made to confront the persistent evidence of voting discrimination in America. How does Mr. Westmoreland respond to the DOJ objections to discriminatory voting plans that occurred in his district in the cities of Ashburn, Forsyth, East Dublin, Macon, and Griffin and in the counties of Bibb and Twiggs? How do he and Mr. Norwood respond to the 20 objections lodged by the DOJ since1982 regarding statewide voting plans deemed to be in violation of the VRA? There is an old Southern saying that goes the dog that howls the most is the one who got hit. Is it possible that Rep. Westmoreland wants to gut Section 5 because Georgia and the 9th congressional district have been required to change discriminatory laws? I think that possibility bears some scrutiny.

The Problem with the Westmoreland and Norwood Amendments

The truth is that Section 5 was intended to prohibit contemporary acts of voting discrimination; higher minority voter turnout and increased numbers of elected officials are a by-product, not the aim, of Section 5. Though there are no more poll taxes and grandfather clauses, today's tools are discriminatory redistricting and annexation plans, at-large elections schemes, unexpected re-registration requirements, sudden polling place changes, and the development of new rules for candidate qualification. All of these methods are used to discriminate against minorities and have lead to over 1000 objections by the DOJ since 1982. The Supreme Court itself has recognized that seemingly insignificant changes to voting plans can actually be subtle attempts to discriminate.

Section 5 has been the only quick, cost effective, and efficient means ever developed to address voting discrimination. Prior to the enactment of the VRA, jurisdictions had to litigate voting discrimination claims, and after one method, such as the "white primary," was found unconstitutional, then a new method was simply implemented. Further, while a law or practice was being litigated, it usually remained enforceable, thus voting rights violations continued during protracted cases. Section 5 now provides a simple administrative alternative or a judicial avenue in which jurisdictions have only to show that a change is not discriminatory. Bail-out provisions already exist within the current legislation. In fact, several districts in Virginia have successfully applied the bail-out provision of the VRA. Bailing-out under the current law is not difficult, it is not expensive, as Rep. Westmoreland claims (average cost is $5000), and jurisdictions can easily prove their case if they want to bail out. Under the current bailout procedure, jurisdictions must show that they are free from discrimination. Under the Westmoreland Amendment the burden is upon the U.S. Attorney General to determine which jurisdictions do not discriminate, which would neutralize the power of the Section 5 by requiring the DOJ to spend its time proving which jurisdictions do not discriminate, instead of preventing voter discrimination as it happens.

Using the last three presidential elections as a "trigger" to determine which jurisdictions should be subject to federal clearance of their election law changes would leave only one state under the purview of Section 5-essentially abolishing Section 5. (That one state would be Hawaii, which has no significant history of voting discrimination). Knowing that an amendment to eliminate Section 5 would not pass, the Norwood Amendment is a back-door attempt to get rid of Section 5. The coverage formula does not need to be updated. The current record reveals the jurisdictions with a pervasive history of voting discrimination are the same jurisdictions today that continue to evidence voting discrimination. Therefore, the current trigger, which utilizes elections turnout in 1975, successfully identifies today's VRA violators.

Westmoreland Call for "Negotiation" Subverts Established House Procedure

Mr. Westmoreland says he is willing to meet with me and the CBC "to create a new formula" for Section 5 coverage. But as a member of the CBC, I think I can say that we as a caucus believe in the hearing process established by the House of Representatives. Mr. Westmoreland had an opportunity to participate in those hearings, and testimony was offered representing his point of view. In the end, those ideas were rejected by the committee as insufficient to address the continuing incidence of voting discrimination in America. H.R. 9 was developed to answer, not the queasiness of public officials in the covered states, but the evidence of violation that permeates the House record. Just as Mr. Westmoreland wants to nullify Section 5 of the VRA, he wants to nullify the Judiciary Committee record and disregard the facts.

In summary, the Westmoreland and Norwood Amendments are age-old attempts to nullify the law and disregard the facts for political gain. We have made those mistakes before in this country, especially as it relates to matters of race, and I hope this nation and this Congress will not choose to go down that dark road again. I hope we have evolved enough at this juncture to choose a better way, a way that is not regressive, but a way that will helps us continue our preparations as a nation and as a people to lay down the burden of race in America.