Officials Challenge Voting Rights Law

Pete Yost, AP, September 17, 2007

Three federal judges reacted with skepticism Monday to a call by some local officials from Texas to overturn a section of the Voting Rights Act.

The law requires officials in 16 states where there has been a history of racial discrimination at the polls to get Justice Department approval for any proposed changes in the way elections are conducted.

A city utility board in Austin, Texas, challenged the requirement in August, eight days after President Bush extended the law for another 25 years.

The pre-clearance review provision serves as a stigma, “a scarlet letter these jurisdictions wear” even though there’s no evidence of discrimination, Gregory Coleman, an attorney for the utility board, argued to the federal appeals court.

Justice Department lawyers pointed out that a steady stream of objections has flowed into the federal government over the years as officials propose changes that are allegedly discriminatory, from redistricting to moving a polling place to a different location.

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Coleman said the pre-clearance requirement was aimed at “gamesmanship” by election officials who seek to circumvent court remedies put in place to end past bias.

“It’s not gamesmanship; it’s discrimination,” snapped U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan. “Discrimination has taken on a different form. They are more sophisticated.”

The case was before a three-member panel as required by the Voting Rights Act, with challenges to the law consolidated in one lower court proceeding. The next stop would be the Supreme Court if the losing side chooses to seek an appeal.

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