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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Court may finally set N.H. voters free

By GRANT BOSSE For the Monitor

When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton joined forces in Unity, N.H., last summer, no one mentioned that they had chosen one of the last bastions of the segregated South for their campaign rally. But in the eyes of the federal Justice Department, Unity and nine other New Hampshire towns have been on a watch list for discriminating against minority voters for the past 40 years. This week, a little-noticed Supreme Court ruling may finally force federal bureaucrats to acknowledge reality and let New Hampshire amend its election laws without federal oversight.

In the midst of the civil rights movement, Congress passed landmark legislation protecting the rights of all Americans to vote regardless of race. The federal government outlawed discriminatory state practices like poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses designed to discourage blacks from ever making it to the voting booth. The 1965 Voting Rights Act included an important provision to prevent segregationist lawmakers from inventing new ways to suppress black turnout. Under Section 5, states that had practiced discrimination, or with suspiciously low voter registration figures, would have to submit any changes to their election laws to federal authorities before they could enforce those changes.

It's been 40 years

So how did 10 New Hampshire towns get on this infamous list of suspected racists? Math. Small New Hampshire towns with low registrations in 1968 got put on the list and haven't been able to get off. In 2004, Attorney General Peter Heed asked federal authorities to take New Hampshire off its list using the "bailout" provision of Section 5. After all, Bull Connor never stood in a schoolhouse door in Rindge. No president ever called out the National Guard to integrate Hawthorne College in Antrim. The memo even provided strong evidence that several towns should never have tripped the pre-clearance trigger.

But the Justice Department couldn't see that these towns never should have been targeted in the first place.

Since 1982, only 17 districts over the 12,000 covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act have successfully "bailed out" of the pre-clearance provision in the law. This week, the Supreme Court took the side of Texas municipal board in Northwest Utility District v Holder. The Court found that federal bureaucrats had been standing in the way of the district's right to "bail out" of federal election oversight. According to Assistant Attorney General James Kennedy, this ruling may finally allow New Hampshire's 10 covered towns to get the Justice Department off their backs.

This case shows that once given power over local decisions, federal bureaucrats don't want to give it up, even if the reason for that oversight has passed into history. This isn't a partisan complaint. The bureaucrats were just as likely to hold onto power during the Nixon and Reagan administrations as under Carter and Clinton. It demonstrates that when Washington steps into a state's decisions, even for the best of reasons, it is unlikely to ever step out again.

Won't notice a thing

The Northwest decision won't change your voting experience at all. The Valley News reported this week that the town clerk in Unity never knew that the town was under the thumb of federal oversight, and the Justice Department has never taken much interest in our local voting procedures. We've been ignoring the Voting Rights Act for 40 years, and both voters and the federal government have been okay with that.

The Northwest decision doesn't negate the importance of the Voting Rights Act, nor does it say that discrimination wasn't or still isn't a problem in America. It simply forces federal authorities to acknowledge reality, and allow states, counties and towns to make their own decisions. It also shows how far we've come in the past 40 years.

(Grant Bosse is lead investigator for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, JBartlett.org.)

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