In a front page story from today’s New York Times, reporter Michael Wines examines how some cities and counties are allegedly attempting to disenfranchise minorities by conducting activities that, prior to a Supreme Court decision, would have required preclearance by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. Georgia, which was one of the states that was required to get the approval of the Justice Department before making changes to its voting procedures, is under the microscope, not coincidentally because of its potential to be a battleground state in the presidential elections this fall.
The story focuses on the city of Sparta, in Hancock County, south of I-20 near Milledgeville. The Hancock County Board of Elections challenged the voter registrations of 180 black residents, amounting to about a fifth of Sparta’s registered voters.
The board’s aim, a lawsuit later claimed, was to give an edge to white candidates in Sparta’s municipal elections — and that November, a white mayoral candidate won a narrow victory.
“A lot of those people that was challenged probably didn’t vote, even though they weren’t proven to be wrong,” said Marion Warren, a Sparta elections official who documented the purges and raised an alarm with voting-rights advocates. “People just do not understand why a sheriff is coming to their house to bring them a subpoena, especially if they haven’t committed any crime.”
The county attorney, Barry A. Fleming, a Republican state representative, said in an interview that the elections board was only trying to restore order to an electoral process tainted earlier by corruption and incompetence. The lawsuit is overblown, he suggested, because only a fraction of the targeted voters were ultimately scratched from the rolls.
“The allegations that people were denied the right to vote are the opposite of the truth,” he said. “This is probably more about politics and power than race.”
The Board of Elections had sheriff deputies track down the individuals whose registration was challenged, summoning them to prove they were allowed to vote. According to the story, some buckled under pressure, and asked to be taken off the voter rolls.
The story also details efforts in Georgia and other states that could affect minority participation in the electoral process, from reducing the number of precincts, to requiring identification in order to vote, to reducing the number of days available for early voting. Are states and cities unfairly discriminating against minority voters, or are they simply protecting the integrity of the voting process? To answer that question, lawsuits like the one in Sparta want to bring back pre-clearance requirements from the Justice Department.