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Published in Print: July 26, 2006, as School Concerns Part of Voting Rights Act Renewal

School Concerns Part of Voting Rights Act Renewal

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Previously stalled efforts to renew the federal Voting Rights Act rushed to completion this month, as Congress reauthorized several key provisions that were due to expire next year. One requires federal approval of changes to voting procedures—including for school board contests—in nine states and additional counties and towns with a history of discrimination in their elections.

Those jurisdictions are subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act whenever they make any change to procedures, such as in redrawing school board members’ electoral districts. They must submit changes to the federal Department of Justice for approval, a procedure known as preclearance. Districts subject to Section 5 sometimes regard it with frustration because it adds to the cost and difficulty of making even minor changes related to voting.

The newly adopted measure extends Section 5—the preclearance provision—of the Voting Rights Act, first signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 and most recently renewed in 1982, for another 25 years.

'Preclearance Required'

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting procedures for racial, ethnic, and language minorities to submit any changes in voting plans or procedures to the federal government for approval.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: ‘Preclearance’ Required

It also extends Section 203, added in 1975, which is due to expire next year as well. That section requires states and localities to issue ballots and other election materials in languages other than English under certain circumstances. The requirement applies when more than 10,000 of their voters, or at least 5 percent of eligible voters, have a primary language other than English and have limited proficiency in English.

Some House members have argued that the Section 5 preclearance provision is outdated and unfairly targets the South, where seven of the nine states subject to the preclearance rules are located.

But civil rights groups say preclearance has been crucial to preserving the voting power of minority citizens.

In debating the legislation on July 13, the House voted down four amendments proposed by Republicans from Georgia, Texas, and Iowa.

The first would have eased the requirement for preclearance of electoral changes by the Justice Department. The second would have modified the formula by opening up the department’s oversight to all 50 states; the amendment’s supporters said that subjecting every state to the same scrutiny would logically help voters, but opponents called the proposal a “poison pill” that would sap congressional support for the law and make enforcement unworkable.

The third would have ended the requirement for assistance to voters who are not proficient in English. The fourth would have extended the law by only 10 years, rather than 25 years as approved by the House.

All the amendments were defeated with votes from a united Democratic House minority, along with those of many Republicans. The chamber approved the Voting Rights Act extension by a vote of 390-33.

The Senate passed the bill on July 20 by a vote of 98-0. President Bush, who had urged prompt passage last week in a speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s convention in Washington, said he would sign what he called “this historic legislation.”

‘A Mixed Bag’

In Georgia, school boards view the Voting Rights Act as “something of a mixed bag,” said Phillip L. Hartley, a Gainesville, Ga., lawyer who works for the Georgia School Boards Association and many individual districts. Making what he sees as even minor election changes, such as scheduling a tax-levy vote on a date other than a general election, requires submitting the plan to the Justice Department for review or applying to the U.S. District Court in Washington.

“There’s enormous paperwork and time hassle involved, because [local officials] have got to make those decisions 60 days or longer in advance of when they need to hold the election,” Mr. Hartley said. Such changes “hardly have any arguable effect on racial-minority groups,” he said. In some instances, though, the Justice Department has rejected such voting changes sought by school districts.

“Obviously, many school districts,” he said, “find the efforts they have to go through to not only to comply with ‘one man, one vote,’ but then to comply with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act” are unnecessary because in today’s world it is not unusual for an African-American to be elected from a mostly white district or vice versa.

But African-American and other minority candidates are being elected in Georgia because of the Voting Rights Act, said Helen Butler, the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, an Atlanta-based civil rights group that focuses on the “quality of governance.”

“We have the largest legislative black caucus in the country—over 50 people [holding office],” Ms. Butler said. “It wouldn’t have been this way without the [Voting Rights Act].”

As for Section 203, which has been swept into the national debate over illegal immigration, “there are a lot of legal citizens who don’t always speak English fluently” and are entitled to language assistance, Ms. Butler said.

Boost for Minorities

The preclearance requirements also affect school districts that sometimes have little connection to the states and counties covered by Section 5.

Tulare County, Calif., for example, is not covered by Section 5, but five of the 56 school districts in the county are, because their boundaries extend into next-door Kings County, one of the few California counties that come under the preclearance provision.

For those five districts, the Voting Rights Act imposes a serious obligation when school leaders wish to ask voters for authority to float a bond or when they adjust electoral districts after a U.S. Census, said Gary deMalignon, a lawyer for Tulare County, which provides legal services to its school districts.

“It’s probably the largest part of our work as their attorney,” Mr. deMalignon said of the five districts.

The Tulare County government, the county’s separate board of education, and other school districts can also be drawn in for Voting Rights Act scrutiny, he said. Currently, for example, the county board of education has asked for the Justice Department’s approval for authority to set up special tax districts to raise money for school construction. Since tax districts could include portions of the five school districts that spill into Kings County, the federal scrutiny is required.

Still, Mr. deMalignon said, the Voting Rights Act seems to have helped boost Latino membership on local school boards. Three of the five districts were sued in the early 1990s by minority voters, who argued that the seats on the school board, which were all at-large, were inaccessible to minority candidates, he said. The districts settled the suits by agreeing to change from at-large systems to single-member electoral districts.

Before the Senate voted, Mr. Hartley, the school lawyer in Georgia, said that despite school officials’ mixed feelings about the Voting Rights Act, many would be alarmed if the preclearance provision were not renewed.

Catherine P. Clark, the associate executive director for governance at the Texas Association of School Boards, agreed that if the preclearance provision were eliminated, “people would be very alarmed.”

Vol. 25, Issue 43, Pages 27,29

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