Ga. Voters Surprised Macon Election Change Isn't Challenged

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It's been almost eight months since the Supreme Court effectively stuck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That section required places with a history of discrimination to get their local voting laws cleared by the federal government. When the Supreme Court ruled, it said people could file lawsuits if they felt disenfranchised. But it hasn't quite worked out that way.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's get an update now on a controversial decision on voting rights handed down last summer by the Supreme Court. It involved the Voting Rights Act. The Court effectively struck down a particular part of that law - a part that required places with a history of discrimination to get their local voting laws pre-cleared by the federal government.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out discrimination at the polls is still against the law, so what's left is a part of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2, that says anyone who claims to have been disenfranchised need only bring suit after the election.

But as Georgia Public Broadcasting's Adam Ragusea reports, it hasn't quite worked out that way.

ADAM RAGUSEA, BYLINE: At the state capitol in North Carolina, voting rights advocates are making their voices heard.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We say no to Voter ID, we shall not be moved.

RAGUSEA: In August, the NAACP and ACLU filed suits over the state's new voter ID law. A month later, Attorney General Eric Holder piled on with the Justice Department's own suit.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Within days of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the state legislature took extremely aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African Americans.

RAGUSEA: What's happening in North Carolina would seem to prove Justice Roberts' point. Sure the federal government couldn't block the voter ID law before it went into effect like they used to be able to. But now they are suing to overturn it.

MICHAEL KANG: At the statewide level, that's where the Democratic Party can fight the battle for African-American, Latino voters.

RAGUSEA: Emory University election law professor Michael Kang.

KANG: Those are fairly high publicity kinds of issues were people mobilize. But at the local level a lot of stuff happens under the radar that really matters, that affects people's ability to vote effectively.

RAGUSEA: For example, around this time last year, Republican legislators in Georgia made a tweak to local elections in Macon - a solidly Democratic, majority black city. Instead of having partisan elections with a primary in July and a general in November, Macon would now have just one nonpartisan election in July.

Chris Grant, a political scientist at Mercer University in Macon, says anytime you hold an election outside the traditional voting month of November, turnout among poor and minority voters drops.

CHRIS GRANT: This was actually one of the mechanisms that was used back before the Voting Rights Act was passed, was having unusual timed elections because it was found to have a discriminatory effect. So that only certain people knew the election was coming up, and it could be campaigned for in a private way.

RAGUSEA: That's exactly why, a year ago, the Justice Department blocked a similar election calendar change in Augusta, Georgia. It looked as though the Feds would do the same for Macon, that is, until the Supreme Court deprived them of that power. In the odd-month election that followed, competitive black candidates for mayor and commission seats lost to white opponents.

GILDA DANIELS: I can certainly see a Section 2 challenge based on the change in election date.

RAGUSEA: Gilda Daniels is a former attorney in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. She says there's a viable lawsuit to be filed in Macon. And yet, no one has done so. Not the Democratic Party, not the NAACP, and Daniels thinks she knows at least one reason why.

DANIELS: It's so expensive, it is very expensive to bring Section 2 cases.

RAGUSEA: Any plaintiff would have to hire lawyers, expert witnesses - it could all cost millions. There's people who will pay that bill for a statewide fight. But it seems voters in this mid-sized city are on their own.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Ragusea in Macon, Georgia.

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