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Bush, Gonzales and the War on Voting Rights

January 23, 2006

The Washington Post today offered a devastating look at the Bush administration's systematic attempt to undermine voting rights in the United States.
The Post looks in-depth at cases in Georgia, Texas and Mississippi in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other Bush political appointees overruled career staff in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. In each, the DOJ granted "pre-clearance" to new state rules designed to suppress minority voter participation to the benefit of the GOP.
As I pointed out last week in "Republican Plantation Politics" (posted again below), the Bush administration continues to pay lip service to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while abrogating its enforcement in reality.

In Washington last week, the President honored the life of Martin Luther King Jr. by calling for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "We all must recognize we have more to do," Bush intoned, "And Congress must renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
Too bad his Justice Department and the Republican Party have been undermining it back in Georgia.
In March, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature passed a voter identification law. Nominally aimed at countering voter fraud, the transparent aim of this virtual poll tax is to suppress the African-American vote - and Democratic prospects - in the state, especially in Atlanta. The bill's sponsor, Augusta Republican Sue Burmeister explained that when black voters in her black precincts "are not paid to vote, they don't go to the polls."
Under the law, Georgia voters would have to present one of six officially recognized forms of identification. Those without driver's licenses would have to pay $20 a new digital ID card, available at motor vehicle offices in only 59 of Georgia's 159 counties.
The impact of the law would be dramatic. The ACLU estimated that as many as 153,000 Georgians would be impacted (based on 2004 numbers); across the state, 231,000 households have no access to a car and 147,000 have no phone service. Largely as a PR stunt, Republican Governor Sonny Perdue dispatched the GLOW ("Georgia Licensing on Wheels") bus to serve indigent and rural voters.
Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 not only banned poll taxes, but mandated that Georgia and eight other southern states must submit proposed voting rules changes to the Justice Department for review of their impact on minority voters. This "pre-clearance" process allows DOJ to block laws and rule changes in the suspect states that would dilute minority voting.
Which is where the Bush Justice Department comes in. As the Washington Post reported in November, Bush political appointees overruled the overwhelming recommendation of DOJ career staff that the Georgia ID program be halted. In a 51-page memo on August 25, 2005, the Civil Rights Division review team voted 4-1 to block the Georgia law. The next day, however, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his aides granted pre-clearance.
Today, the Georgia ID program is in limbo, thanks to the action of the federal courts. In October, a U.S. District Court blocked the plan, comparing it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax. The injunction was upheld on appeal by a three-judge panel with two Republican members. Last Friday, the Georgia House approved a new version of the law, one that seeks to obtain federal judicial blessing by expanding the ID card distribution centers to all 159 counties. Passage in the Georgia Senate and Governor Sonny Perdue's signature are expected.
In Washington, Alberto Gonzales, like President Bush on Martin Luther King Day, claims he wanted to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in practice, Bush and his Attorney General want to effectively gut the law.
Meanwhile, back in Georgia, King aide and U.S. Representative John Lewis boycotted a ceremony at the State House honoring the civil rights leader on Friday. As he put it, "I believe it was too great a contradiction to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King in one hour and pass the Georgia photo ID bill in the next."
President Bush was right about one thing on Martin Luther King's birthday. We do indeed have more work to do.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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