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February 26, 2013

Area observers weigh in on Voting Rights Act suit

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — Several area residents Monday said the time is not right for the Supreme Court to overturn a key section of the Voting Rights Act.

The legislation, passed in 1965, sought to ensure minorities have the right to vote. The challenge from Shelby, Ala., is to Section 5 of the law, which is intended to combat discrimination at the polls by keeping federal election oversight over those places with a history of preventing minorities from voting.

The law prohibits any changes — from moving a polling place to redrawing electoral districts — without approval from the Justice Department or federal judges in Washington. It applies mostly to Southern states, including Alabama. The case, Shelby County v. Holder, will be argued Wednesday before the Supreme Court.

Hartwick College Associate Dean and Director of the U.S. Pluralism Center Harry Matthews said the law is still needed. This kind of effort to change issues that appear to have been resolved is something people should always be vigilant about, he said.

“It’s about power — those who have it and those who don’t,” he said. At a time when values and beliefs are changing with the changing demographics, some will fight to prevent the change, he said.

“It’s a battle about whether the society can prepare for a new agenda,” he said, and roadblocks to voting should not be put up to prevent that from occurring.

If the provision is overturned, it will invigorate a new movement in society, he said. People will rally, including in this area, which has seen progress on the issues over the years, to take back any rights lost.

“One of the great achievements of the the late 20th century was the enfranchisement of black voters,” State University College at Oneonta history professor William Simons said. Before that there was an “American apartheid” in some areas of the South.

“It would be very sad to see that return,” he said.

New York is generally “too progressive” to be affected by any change in the law, he said, but such changes could ultimately determined who controls the federal government.

Oneonta-area NAACP President Lee Fisher said with the memories fresh from the last election of roadblocks to people voting — including long lines at the polls and changes to voter ID requirements in some areas — he would not want to see any rollbacks. If there is a change that sets back civil rights laws, it could have an impact everywhere, he said.

“The law should stay as it is. People have died for the right to vote,” he said. “It needs the threat of oversight.”