NAACP panel in BR urges diligence on voting laws

Members of the NAACP must work diligently to oppose racially discriminatory voting laws in Louisiana and several other states, panelists said Thursday at the state conference’s annual convention in Baton Rouge.

Targeted by those speakers was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to abolish a special formula of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That formula forced Louisiana and eight other states to seek advance federal approval for all changes in voting laws.

The Supreme Court decision in an Alabama case, Shelby County v. Holder, is an “assault on the Voting Rights Act,” said Alfreda Tillman Bester, general counsel for the Louisiana Conference of the NAACP.

“They said it was an unconstitutional formula,” Bester added.

“All that means is they gutted it.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in June and said: “Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting.”

Roberts added that the formula had been left behind by decades of progress in the affected states.

Cedric Floyd, a member of the NAACP panel said elimination of the formula for requiring advance federal approval for voting laws of affected states imposes an expensive burden on minorities.

Court suits will become the last resort for people who feel their votes are being diluted or suppressed, predicted Floyd, a demographer and president of the Data Center research firm.

“That’s what is sad to me about it,” Floyd added. “It takes tens of thousands of dollars to bring a court case.”

In June, Justice Ruth Ginsburg wrote the dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, noting that black residents of several states suffered from voting discrimination for a century after the Civil War.

She said legislators in those states often rewrote voting laws just as soon as minorities won a voting-rights suit.

“Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra,” Ginsburg added. “Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place.”

On Thursday, Natasha M. Korgaonkar, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told the panel audience southern states were not the only states or parts of states that formerly were required to obtain advance federal approval for voting rights laws.

“Arizona has a sordid history of discriminating against Latino voters,” Korgaonkar said, adding that some parts of Alaska have discriminated for years against Native American voters.

The old Voting Rights Act formula “really blocked discrimination before evil could take root,” Korgaonkar said. “Now, we don’t have a backstop.”

Congress can adopt a new formula if enough voters pressure their representatives and senators to take action, Korgaonkar suggested.

Judge Donald Johnson of the 19th Judicial District told the audience he is ashamed of any public officials who may say there is no need for the now-abolished formula in Louisiana.

“That is an affront,” Johnson said. “That is equivalent to the N-word. Have no doubt about it.”

Johnson, like Korgaonkar, said: “We no longer have the right to stop discrimination before it starts.”

Referring to a pending voting rights suit in Baton Rouge federal court, Johnson noted that black residents have for years been the majority in the city, but hold only two of the five City Court judgeships.

“Why?” Johnson asked. “Power. Simply that. Power.”

Winston Riddick, a professor at the Southern University Law Center, said the Supreme Court for the past 60 years had been “the champion of the rights of the people.”

Added Riddick: “The Supreme Court in the Shelby case said all states must be considered equal.” No such statement is in the U.S. Constitution, Riddick said.

The law professor said the current Supreme Court is reversing gains made in individual rights over several decades.

Prior to Shelby, Riddick said, affected states had the burden of proving that proposed election laws were not racially discriminatory.

Now, that burden rests on the shoulders of individual citizens.

Texas decided years ago not to wait a decade to use fresh census figures to reapportion legislative districts, Riddick noted. He said reapportionment in that state now takes place after only two or three years.

Such changes may soon occur in Louisiana, Riddick said.

“We have politicized the most sacred right in a democracy you can have — the right to vote,” Riddick added.

“We cannot give up the fight,” Riddick told the audience. “Are we going to be an inclusive society that gives all people rights?”

Ernest L. Johnson, president of the NAACP’s Louisiana State Conference, joined the panel discussion to urge members to renew efforts to persuade friends and neighbors to both register to vote and cast their ballots in all elections.

Johnson said he was appalled that only about 30 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Louisiana’s last gubernatorial election. He emphasized that only about 20 percent of black voters participated in that election.

Those numbers are troubling, Johnson said.

Referring to Donald Johnson’s mention of the voting rights dispute over City Court election boundaries in Baton Rouge, Ernest Johnson said: “Black voting power in Baton Rouge is suppressed. This is going to change.”

Johnson said residents of Baker, Zachary and Central elect their mayors and city council members.

There is no mayor and no city council in Baton Rouge, Ernest Johnson noted — only a mayor-president and city-parish council. And voters in Baker, Zachary and Central help decide those elections.

The NAACP convention continues Friday and Saturday.