Advocate Washington bureau

WASHINGTON -- Louisiana could soon come out of the oversight of the federal government on voting procedures, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a case heard Wednesday.

The Supreme Court case involves Shelby County, Ala., challenging the requirement of nine mostly Southern states, including Louisiana, to acquire federal approval for any changes to voting procedures.

The issue pertains to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was created in the aftermath of racial discrimination and voter suppression efforts that occurred in Louisiana and other states.

Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who is a Republican, said he hopes the provision is repealed or at least "strongly relaxed."

But those who disagreed with Shelby County argued that the Section 5 provision is ensuring voting moves forward properly in a world with reduced, but still existing, discrimination.

Discrimination is "strongly on the run," Schedler said, and any "isolated" issues that do occur usually happen in small townships that can be remedied through the regulation of state government.

From a practical standpoint, Schedler said, having to receive Department of Justice approval for any elections procedural change costs the state money and becomes unnecessarily time consuming.

"It's a waste of taxpayers' money that can be better put to other areas," Schedler said.

He could not pinpoint how much the provision costs the state. "It's certainly a sizable number," he said.

He said changes need to come eventually. "When is enough, enough?" Schedler asked. "Are we still going to be under this 40 years from now?"

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans disagreed with his "friend" from when both served in the state Legislature.

Discrimination still exists in Louisiana and much of the nation, Richmond said. "I'm not confident that it's isolated to towns and has not resurfaced in the Legislature," he said.

Richmond noted that all of Louisiana's congressional redistricting proposals in the past - until the most recent a couple years ago - were rejected by the federal government because they suppressed minority voting.

"What harm does it have in someone else looking at the proposed laws or changes?" Richmond asked.

If anyone wants to argue that discrimination is over in Louisiana, Richmond said, he would point to a 2008 murder by a Ku Klux Klan leader from Bogalusa during a member initiation.

The U.S. Supreme Court arguments on Wednesday covered similar ground.

Justice Antonin Scalia called the Section 5 provision a "perpetuation of racial entitlement," according to the Associated Press.

Justice Stephen Breyer said of ongoing discrimination: "It's an old disease, it's gotten a lot better, a lot better, but it's still there. So if you had a remedy that really helped it work, but it wasn't totally over, wouldn't you keep that remedy?"

One of the top debates in recent years in battleground states has come over laws requiring photo identification in order to vote. Critics have contended such laws unfairly target minorities and low-income residents who often rely on public transportation and do not have driver's licenses.

But Louisiana has had a photo identification law in place since 1997 and has avoided legal challenges. The catch is that in Louisiana people without identification can still vote if they sign sworn affidavits and can fill out a certain amount of personal information.

"To me, that's a happy medium," Schedler said.