York County was as divided Tuesday over the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key element of the Voting Rights Act as the justices themselves.
The 5-4 decision sends parts of the landmark 1965 law back to Congress, asking legislators to update which states require preclearance to enact voting changes and which do not.
Adolphus Belk, associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Winthrop University, said he isn’t sure if Congress can do that.
“It’s going to be a very ideologically and partisan-charged fight,” he said.
Congress is probably too “dysfunctional” to resolve the issue, Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols said. In 2009, the Supreme Court indicated Congress would need to change the preclearance criteria, but lawmakers declined to act.
Still, state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said Congress is the right body to address the problem, calling the court’s decision a victory for the nation.
“To stick with something that happened 48 years ago isn’t right,” he said.
State Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, found the decision disheartening, because race is still very much an issue in South Carolina, citing the state’s new voter identification law, which critics say makes voting more difficult for the young, the elderly and minorities.
“We still have a ways to go to ensure that all people are represented,” he said. “And with the rise of legislation that has come about in reference to the change in voting rights...we still need to be vigilant.”
Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice, argue that voter ID laws are discriminatory and reduce the number of voters.
“It’s a little difficult to understand,” Echols said, “when we still see so many signs where states and regions, in some cases, are making it more difficult for people to vote when we should be making it easier for people to vote.”
The Voting Rights Act requires South Carolina and eight other states with a history of repressing minority voters to get approval from the Justice Department before any changes in voting laws can take effect.
“Rather than waiting for acts of discrimination to occur,” Winthrop’s Belk said, “the U.S. Congress (in 1965) said, ‘No, we’re going to take the initiative.’”
In 2011, the Justice Department ruled that South Carolina’s voter ID law was discriminatory, but a federal court overturned that decision in October 2012.
Despite that victory, Norman said the process gave too much power to the federal government over state and local authority.
“When implementing voter ID,” he said, “to have that looked at (by the Justice Department) isn’t right.”
York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said discriminating against specific states under the Voting Rights Act is just as bad as discrimination based on race. He said the Supreme Court’s decision was necessary for the country to remain progressive.
“This allows the country to move forward and provides the next stop for truly equal treatment for all,” he said.
Brother David Boone of the Rock Hill Oratory has a special place in his heart for the Voting Rights Act. Back in the 1960s, he helped register black voters in Rock Hill.
“I saw the critical need and I saw how people were harassed at the polls and (when) trying to register to vote,” he said.
Maintaining the Voting Rights Act was crucial, Boone said, but he believes minority voters in Rock Hill and York County no longer need its extra protection.
But not every community is ready to be free of the extra scrutiny, he said.
“I would be afraid of some of the counties in South Carolina by not having it,” he said, predicting that some likely would return to discriminatory voting and registration practices.
Echols said the Supreme Court’s ruling should have little impact on city elections.
Alan Helms, York County’s deputy elections director, said his office will take its cues from the state election commission in determining any changes. He said the county doesn’t have any proposed voting changes currently being reviewed by the Justice Department.