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Section 5 Voting Rights Follies

The US Supreme Court this morning did not announce its ruling on whether or not to invalidate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Maybe Thursday. We are waiting on pins and needles here in West Feliciana Parish, because the ruling will have a direct impact on the implementation of a Home Rule Charter approved by parish voters last November. The charter (HRC) would create a new system of government, replacing the old “Police Jury” system, a vestige of Spanish colonial rule, and unique to Louisiana. Under the Voting Rights Act, states like Louisiana, which have had discriminatory voting practices in the past, must be “pre-cleared” by the US Justice Department before the can implement changes like this. If SCOTUS overturns Section 5, implementation can begin now, though Justice still gets to sign off on redistricting.

At issue is at what point localities who have been under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act since 1965 can be free of it. At what point will they have made sufficient racial progress to be out from under such strict Justice Department oversight?

I haven’t followed the controversy over Section 5, and haven’t even followed the controversy in my own parish over HRC — until recently, when local opponents of Home Rule launched a drive among the Police Jurors (who do not have police powers, FYI) to send the HRC back to voters for repeal. If they succeed — as they may well do in tonight’s meeting — voters of the parish may nullify an election less than a year later, before any of its results were implemented.

From the public meetings I’ve been attending, it appears that most of the resistance to Home Rule is based in race. I posted a lengthy analysis and report on my local blog this morning.   In short, we’re told that the black community — 33 percent of this parish — doesn’t believe a black candidate can win the parishwide vote for Parish President under the Home Rule system, because no black has ever won a parishwide election. At the last public meeting, a black voter indicated to the largely white audience that in her view, a white person cannot represent a black person. (See my blog for the full context; I think that’s a fair representation of her views). It’s gotten nakedly racial here.

I did research this morning on the Secretary of State’s office, going through all the election records going back to 1982, which is the first year for which they’re available online. What I found is that black candidates over the last 31 years have rarely run for parishwide office — and in about one-third of the cases, when they have, a majority of black voters have chosen the white candidate. Plus, there was a 1996 election for District Attorney, covering West and East Feliciana Parishes, in which the black candidate, who won the office, carried West Feliciana by a comfortable margin. He couldn’t have done that without a significant percentage of the white vote.

It’s not 1965 in West Feliciana anymore, but some diehards among the local black community seem to believe that it is — and some whites in political office seem to be using that sentiment to hold on to the jobs that a majority of the parish’s voters eliminated in last fall’s election.

If SCOTUS upholds Section 5, the Justice Department might still pre-clear the HRC plan in time, and anyway, that has nothing to do with the local politics of trying to reverse the people’s November 2012 vote, motivated in part by largely groundless racial concerns. Under the new plan, black citizens will receive proportional representation. Their only concern is with the executive office (we don’t have a parish executive now), fearing that a black candidate doesn’t have a chance to win. Yet as I said, over the last generation, few black candidates have even bothered to run parishwide. So the evolution of the political system, and the will of a majority of voters, is being thwarted by a relatively disengaged populace voting their fears, not the facts. At least that’s how it seems to me.

UPDATE: I was wrong in my blog post. The new charter plan will have five council members: four elected by single member districts (two majority black, two majority white) and one elected at large by the whole parish. Plus the parish president, elected at large. So there is more reason than I thought for black citizens to be concerned about the dilution of black voting strength, but not, I think, sufficient reason, given the changed demographics, evolved political and cultural landscape, and the openness of the reform process, to justify attempting to overturn the charter. A charter commission member explained to me just now that the entire reason for the charter was to do away with an outmoded system of government, and replace it with a form that features a separation of powers for checks and balances. What we have now is not working, but rather miring itself in factionalism.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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