For years, Augusta, Georgia, has held its local elections in November, when turnout is high. But last year, state Republicans changed the election date to July, when far fewer blacks make it to the polls. The effort was blocked under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by the federal government, which cited the harm that the change would do to minorities. But now that the Supreme Court has badly weakened the landmark civil rights law, the move looks to be back on. The city’s African-Americans say they know what’s behind it. “It’s a maneuver to suppress our voting participation,” Dr. Charles Smith, the president of Augusta’s NACCP branch, told msnbc. The dispute is flaring at a time when Georgia, long deep-red, is becoming increasingly politically competitive, and Democrats have nominated two candidates with famous names for high-profile statewide races next year. Voting rights experts say the events in Augusta may be a sign of what’s to come—or even of what’s already happening. In June, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the VRA, which had required certain jurisdictions, mostly in the south, to submit election changes to the federal government to ensure they didn’t harm minority voters. Since then, harsh voting restrictions put in place by several southern states have generated national news coverage—Texas’ voter ID law and North Carolina’s sweeping voting bill most prominent among them. But most of the changes stopped by Section 5 weren’t statewide laws. Instead, they were measures adopted at the local or county level.
“It’s school boards, and county commissions, and city councils, and water districts, and police juries,” Julie Fernandes, a former top voting-rights official at the Justice Department, said last week at a panel on voting rights. “It’s all the stuff that really, really, really matters to folks all over the country, where they live.”
So it’s no surprise that since the high court’s ruling, smaller jurisdictions from Georgia to Arizona are moving to change election rules in ways that undermine hard-won minority political power. Donita Judge, a staff attorney with the Advancement Project, a civil-rights organization, said these kind of local election changes deserve more focused attention.
“In many ways, those type of elections are the ones that really impact you day-to-day,” Judge told msnbc. “We have to keep our eyes on those areas also.”