Georgia has made strides toward equality in the past half-century, but whether it has reached a point where federal intervention is still needed to protect minority voters has left Cobb County Republicans and Democrats sharply divided.
In a 5-4 ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The ruling deemed unconstitutional the formula to determine which states and local governments required federal clearance for changes — even down to the location of a polling precinct.
Republicans throughout Georgia commended the Supreme Court’s decision, which many said had put an extra burden on the state to prove any changes a local election board made would not create obstacles for minority voters. But Democrats argue racism is far from eradicated in Georgia and the change in law would remove safeguards that ensure minorities’ right to vote.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said he was in agreement with the ruling, and that the Voting Rights Act has already served its purpose: to remedy the disenfranchisement of minorities at the ballot box.
“The South does not have the characteristics it did 60-something years ago,” Isakson said.
He also supported the directive given by the courts for Congress to establish a new formula to determine which states and local governments should be subject to federal scrutiny and pre-approval of changes by the Department of Justice. The majority opinion of the court argued the previous formula was based on “decades-old data” and didn’t reflect present-day realities.
“That’s something I think we should do,” Isakson said. “The Voting Rights Act is an important thing for every American citizen and it’s something we should not go without. With us rewriting and making it contemporary for 2013 and beyond, I think that’s the appropriate thing to do.”
Following a luncheon by the West Cobb Business Association, Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday he was in favor of the court’s decision to simplify a “cumbersome” process that he believed placed a stigma on the state of Georgia.
He said he doesn’t think the action will open Georgia citizens up to discrimination, as the act was always meant to be “temporary in nature” and it still guarantees protections of voters.
Attorney General Sam Olens, who lives in east Cobb, released a statement Tuesday recognizing the discrimination prevented by the Voting Rights Act when it was passed in the 1960s, but countered that “things have changed dramatically” almost 50 years later.
“The Voting Rights Act will continue to protect the rights of all voters in all states, but will no longer treat some states differently based on outdated formulas that, thankfully, no longer reflect current practices,” Olens said. “Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act makes clear that racial discrimination in voting is illegal nationwide, and remains a strong and effective tool to counter discrimination.”
Olens would not speak in more detail as to how the decision will affect Georgia or if his office, which legally represents the state, would enhance its level of oversight in local elections following the change.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Georgia’s chief elections official, also reinforced the message Tuesday, saying in a news release it is his “sacred duty” to ensure racial discrimination has no part in the democratic process.
Inger Eberhardt, executive assistant to Joanne Birrell and on the board of advisers of immigration reformer D.A. King’s Dustin Inman Society, said she was in support of the decision and believes society doesn’t have the same problems today it faced 60 years ago.
“I think it’s a good decision,” Eberhardt said. “There’s nothing that stops people from voting now. From a voter’s point of view, I don’t see any issues with it.”
“It’s a travesty,” said Cobb Democratic Party chair Melissa Pike of the ruling.
Pike said headlines as recently as this week highlighting celebrity chef and Georgia native Paula Deen’s use of the “n-word” show that modern society hasn’t moved beyond racism and voting rights still need to be protected.
“Clearly, (the Supreme Court justices) are living in a different world and all I can do is pray for them,” Pike said. “I pray for them and hope they don’t ever have to face the kind of discriminations that made the Voting Rights Act necessary.”
Pike said she hopes the decision mobilizes a new generation of activists to join the Democratic cause to advocate for disenfranchised voters.
Deane Bonner, president of Cobb’s chapter of NAACP, also took issue with Tuesday’s ruling, saying it basically finds that racism is non-existant in today’s society.
“It says that there are no more barriers put before us,” Bonner said. “We know differently.”
Bonner cited what she called “excessive” identification requirements and a local reduction in the number of early voting days as obstacles that make it more difficult for minorities to vote.
“But what is encouraging to us is in 2012, we were not expected to go to the polls in 2012,” said Bonner, referencing the re-election of President Barack Obama. “We know that we will continue to have to fight to keep the right to vote.”
Bonner said she has “little faith” Congress will be able to come up with a new formula to determine which states and local jurisdictions still need federal oversight, but hopes to work with national NAACP leaders to make sure Congress moves forward in that arena.
“We will be very strategic and very clear as to protecting rights,” Bonner said. “I don’t know the game plan yet, but I’m certainly going to join in on advocating.”