Lloyd Gray: Vigilance on voting rights

July 10, 2013 10:19:25 AM



Most Mississippians take pride in the state's racial progress through the years. Those who doubt there's been much progress either don't know our state's history or aren't paying attention to the world around them. 


But that progress didn't come easy. Official Mississippi resisted it, inciting if not overtly condoning racist violence along the way. 


To their credit, most Mississippi state and federal elected officials responded to last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision that halted enforcement of a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act by acknowledging our state's long and shameful suppression of black voting rights. But we've put that behind us, they said, and we no longer should be singled out with a few other states and made to submit all election law changes for approval by the Washington bureaucracy. 


Fair enough. A 5-4 majority of the high court agreed, and for the first time in nearly half a century the state will be freed of that onerous, expensive Department of Justice approval process. 


But we shouldn't forget that the Voting Rights Act was absolutely essential to make the changes in Mississippi happen. 


That Mississippi has the highest number of black elected officials of any state was cited multiple times leading up to and following the Supreme Court ruling as evidence that the state had changed dramatically and that the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act was no longer needed. 


Here's what we need to remember: That provision is almost solely responsible for the fact that so many black Mississippians hold elective office. By closely scrutinizing every district from which county and municipal officials, legislators and members of Congress have been elected in Mississippi the last half-century, the Justice Department, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and the courts have ensured that black voting clout was maximized and districts drawn to make election of more black officials likely. 


So in that sense, the progress we cite as evidence that we don t need the law any longer is in fact a direct result of that law and the deterrent it has provided to any reversion to the old ways. 


That's not necessarily an argument for keeping Mississippi in a special category of states treated differently than others. It's just a fact we need to keep in mind. 


There will be close scrutiny of Mississippi as it enters this new era of greatly diminished federal oversight on election matters. The most immediate impact will be the implementation of the state's voter ID constitutional amendment, approved by the voters in November 2011 but previously languishing in Washington. 


It will be a while the better part of a decade before the next big round of post-census redrawing of electoral districts. So no impending big battles are on the horizon there. That will be the biggest test of the impact of reduced federal oversight. 


In the meantime, if citizens perceive discrimination, there are still protections available in federal and state law and the courts in seeking relief. 


It's still a fact unfortunate, but undeniable that voting follows racial patterns in Mississippi. Black voters generally support black candidates, when given the choice, and white voters will support candidates of their own race. There are exceptions, of course, but they generally prove the rule. 


Slowly, that is changing. Everyone no doubt longs for the day when politics in Mississippi moves beyond race. For a while yet, however, vigilance is necessary to ensure that our proclamations of a new day are proven as durable without close federal oversight as they were with it.