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Clearing Up ‘Pre-Clearance?’

Westmoreland Wants Section 5 of the VRA Eliminated or Applied to All 50 States

With Congress set to take up renewal of the Voting Rights Act at the beginning of next year, a quiet battle could be brewing in at least one Southern delegation over a provision that requires U.S. Justice Department approval of changes to voting practices in certain states.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said Wednesday that he believes Section 5 — which mandates that states with a documented history of discrimination have to “pre-clear” any changes to electoral practices — should either be struck from the legislation or applied uniformly to all states.

Either way, the freshman lawmaker believes there is enough tangible evidence of Georgia’s advancement over the past 40 years that the state no longer merits coverage by the provision.

But that belief is squarely at odds with Democrats in the Peach State delegation — including Rep. John Lewis (D), a civil rights movement icon — who say it is clear that the state still needs Section 5.

Westmoreland said he plans to begin lobbying his colleagues about the provision, which currently applies to Georgia and seven other states, along with portions of six others.

“In 1965, there may have been a need for the Voting Rights Act. I’m sure there probably was,” Westmoreland said, recalling that he was 15 at the time. “What I do know is that in the last 40 years, Georgia has made great progress. We’ve got one of the highest registered black populations. We have some of the highest black voter turnout of any state in the union — those that are under the Voting Rights Act and those that are not under” it.

Shortly after the VRA was approved, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 was constitutional because it was crafted as a temporary measure.

The House Judiciary Committee has already begun oversight hearings on renewing the VRA, provisions of which do not expire until 2007. A subcommittee hearing devoted entirely to Section 5 and its “history, scope and purpose” was held Tuesday.

In making his case for why the section is no longer valid, Westmoreland argued that there are no set criteria for which states should be covered and why.

“You look at the states that are under the Voting Rights Act, Arizona is but New Mexico isn’t,” he said.

He also believes the measure puts an undue burden on localities, who have to get Justice Department approval for changing a precinct line or moving a polling place across the street.

“If it’s so good, why not do it for every state?” he said. “Why should just certain states have to spend the time and money and the energy to go through pre-clearance for just moving a voter precinct or changing a precinct line? Why do that?”

Westmoreland, a first-term Congressman and former state legislative leader, spearheaded the GOP effort to redraw the state’s Congressional boundaries earlier this year. A new map has since been approved by Justice and will be used for the 2006 elections.

Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), another freshman, said he would support expanding Section 5 coverage to other states, but not if it meant diminished support for the provision overall.

“It’s very clear that expanding it could cost some support for preserving it,” Barrow said. “And while I’m not opposed to expanding it, I am opposed to expanding it if it will cost us the support we need to preserve it.”

Democrats such as Lewis believe that broadening the scope of the provision would weaken the VRA overall and open it up to constitutional challenges.

“That would be the death of that section,” Lewis said in a recent interview. “In the final analysis, there will be a consensus that we should not tamper with the real essence of the act. It’s been very, very effective for the past 40 years. We needed it in ’65, and we still need it in ’05.”

Barrow pointed to an ongoing legal battle in Georgia as evidence of why the state still needs Section 5. Earlier this year the Georgia Legislature passed a law requiring voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls. The provision was approved by the Justice Department but recently was struck down in court.

“Our most recent experience shows how important it is that we review changes to the voting rules to make sure that they’re not having adverse impact on folks, based on where they live or how old they are or how they’ve been able to exercise the right to vote for 25 or 30 years,” Barrow said.