Voting Problems and Solutions
By William Velasquez, Edward Brown Jr., Joseph Smith, James Buskey, Abigail Turner, Robert Woods
Vol. 4, No. 1, 1981, pp. 28-33
William E. Velasquez
My name is William C. Velasquez and I am the executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP). SVREP is a non-partisan 501(c)(3) voter registration project working in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas. We have conducted 336 voter registration campaigns in these states since 1975. In addition we have undertaken an extensive series of studies designed to measure the Hispanic participation in the political process and explore the impediments to full participation. SVREP, together with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other legal societies have sued, settled or are currently negotiating with forty-seven (47) jurisdictions to remedy some of the more outrageous gerrymandering we have found in the Southwest.
The desires of the Hispanic voter in the Southwest are much in keeping with what all Americans want. The overwhelming majority of the requests for assistance from the field are to impact the cities and the schools. Chicanos in the Southwest want paved streets, drainage, curbs and better schools. The tradition in the vast majority of Southwestern cities is that the Mexican side of town is not paved, much less provided adequate municipal services, and the schools in our side of town are terribly inferior. Better municipal services and better schools consistently rank as the top two priorities in all our work in the field and in our polls.
Unfortunately, it is at the local level that the greatest barriers are found. For example, the first sixty-six counties that the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) analyzed in Texas were all found to be gerrymandered against Chicanos at the county commissioner level. This, of course, is beyond the realm of statistical probability and does not happen by accident. As many as 128 counties throughout the Southwest may be gerrymandered at the county commissioner level against Chicanos. In addition, there are 42 school boards in Texas with 50 percent or more Chicano students and no Chicano elected official. Another 30 school boards with 50 percent to 91.5 percent Chicano students have only one Chicano school board member. The number of Chicano students must rise to an average of 89.1 percent before Chicanos begin having appreciable representation at the school board level. The reason for this is the at-large election scheme.
These structural barriers coupled with voting abuses, such as letting people vote who aren’t registered to vote, taking the ballot out of the booth and to the homes of Anglo ranchers to vote in tight elections, make it virtually impossible to win.
It used to be much worse.
In the last four years under the Voting Rights Act, Hispanics in the Southwest have made excellent gains in voter registration. From 1976 to 1980 the number of Hispanics registered to vote in the state of Texas increased from 488,000 to 798,000, a 64 percent increase. There has also been an increase in the number of elected officials. SVREP has documented a 29.5 percent increase of Hispanics elected to office in the three years from 1976 to 1979. Dramatic increases in registration and turnout have been noted in a number of areas where the Department of Justice has issued letters of objection. Crockett County, Texas, for example, now has a registration rate of 95.2 percent among Chicanos, and 93.6 percent of the Chicanos registered turned out to vote in a recent county commissioner race that was made possible by equitable districting lines under Section 5 of the VRA. Many other cities and counties such as Sonora, Dallas, Crockett County, Houston, and San Antonio have been similarly affected.
The process that is unfolding before us is the process whereby America integrates a people, an immigrant working class, into our democratic electoral process. We have a long way to go; however, the progress afforded us under the protection of the Voting Rights Act gives cause for optimism. My optimism is not just for the Chicano people’s political future, but for the future of our country. Indeed, I feel very strongly that the struggles we have gone through and those struggles of previous immigrant groups have helped this country stay true to its basic ideals. And important among those ideals is that America is a land of just laws that practices what it preaches …. and where in fact a group from humble circumstances can strive to and actually elect their own representatives.
William C. Velasquez gave testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on May 6, 1981.
Edward Brown, Jr.
My name is Edward Brown, Jr.. I’m from Camilla, Georgia. I’m District Coordinator of the Seventh District of the NAACP which includes 28 counties in southwest Georgia.
Mitchell County has 50 or more elected officials but only four are black, representing the more than 45 percent black population. The county has had five suits filed against it for discrimination. The first in 1948 was for discrimination in voting.
I’ve run for political office on two occasions in south Georgia: in 1976 for the state house of representatives from Mitchell County and in 1979 for mayor of Camilla. My experience has been that race is a tremendous handicap in running for office in southwest Georgia.
It’s difficult to campaign in white areas. I tried at first but whites were reluctant to accept my campaign material; and one tore up my card as I stood on his front door step. Private clubs and churches are basically segregated so that it is hard to establish political coalitions with white organizations. In fact, the exclusive white Lions club runs elections in Camilla; the all white Rotary club runs elections in Petham; and the Pilot Club does the same in Baconston, the third largest precinct in Mitchell County.
As might be expected, racial block voting persists in Mitchell County. During my state race, a deputy sheriff carried whites to the polls but never blacks. My wife voted and as she was marking her ballot, she heard the deputy instruct a voter in the adjoining booth not to vote for me because “he’s a nigger.” My poll watcher was denied entrance to the polls until 11:30 a.m. on election day because my white opponent did not have a poll worker present.
During the city election local police guarded the line of voters, a practice which intimidated blacks. In fact, two blacks were arrested for interfering with voting procedures. The charges were later dropped.
I received a majority of the votes cast at the polls, but after the absentee ballots were counted, I was declared the loser. I was not allowed to see the absentee ballots until a week later.
Edward Brown, Jr. presented this testimony before the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on June 3, 1981.
Joseph F. Smith
I am Joseph Frederick Smith of McDonough, Henry County, Georgia. I am a retired school administrator with thirty-three years in the Henry County School System. In 1980 I was elected to the county school board, becoming the first black ever to hold a county elective office.
Henry County, Georgia was totally segregated until the 1960s. The courthouse and city offices in all four towns were occupied only by whites. The eating places, bathroom facilities, drinking fountains, and all public meeting places were segregated. School integration was done in 1970 by pairing white and black students in certain grades and sending them to the same schools. Like in many other places, two large all white private schools were established in the county. They siphoned off about 1,000 students from the public schools, and costs the system $1,000 per year per child.
We began to organize in the 1960s to improve the quality of life for blacks in the county. There was and continues to be great disparity in municipal services in the white and black communities; there were no black elected or appointed officials, no blacks on the county police force, and no blacks employed in meaningful positions in government or private businesses.
We were given promises that these problems would be looked into. Some appointments were made, but the central problem was that we did not have any black elected officials. By 1972, one black had run for county commission, and in 1976 another black and I ran for the school board. None of us were successful because we just could not win under the at-large election system. Racially polarized voting prevented a black from getting enough votes to win any seat.
In 1978 we sought legal assistance, and our attorneys discovered that both the county commission and school board had changed to the at-large system in the late 1960s without submitting the legislation to the Attorney General for preclearance under Section 5. Actually, no legislation had been submitted from the county since the Voting Rights Act had been passed.
We negotiated with both groups for almost a year without success, even though the Justice Department had entered objections under Section 5 to both at-large changes. The school board refused to talk to us or our attorneys, and the county commission set up a committee that proposed several redistricting plans that all continued to dilute minority voting strength. None of the plans we submitted were even given serious consideration by this group. The state legislature delegation introduced one of these plans even though we strongly opposed it. The bill passed, the governor signed it, and the Justice Department objected again.
To the surprise of both boards we sued under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in November, 1979. In June, 1980, a judgement was entered ordering that the county be redistricted into 5 single-member districts, one of which was majority black, and assessing $14,000 in attorneys’ fees
against the county. This was a tremendous waste of time and tax money.
As a result of the new redistricting plan, I won my seat on the board of education. The black candidate for county commission lost in a run-off by 95 votes. It is apparent to me that without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which allowed us to attack the at-large system—no black would ever have been elected to the Henry County School Board and County Comission. No matter how much we spoke out, blacks were passed over…
Joseph Fredrick Smith presented testimony before the U.S. House Subcomittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on June 3, 1981.
James E. Buskey
I represent in the Alabama legislature a district in the City of Mobile, and, since my career in politics has been in that city, I am quite familiar with a lawsuit called Mobile v. Bolden. While urging the continuation of the Voting Rights Act, I must also strongly urge you to amend Section 2 of the Act to conform with Section 5 and make clear that Congress prohibits any practice which is racially discriminatory, whether in purpose or effect.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has had an important deterrent effect. During my term in the state legislature, I have heard numerous changes in voting procedures discussed and abandoned due to the existence of federal clearance requirements. I know the deterrent effect of Section 5 is real.
Without Section 5, at least 72 discriminatory changes would now be in effect in Alabama, according to the Department of Justice. Forty-five objections have been filed since 1975. I ask you to consider this list of jurisdictions which have attempted to submerge black political participation through such means as changing from district to at-large voting, illegally redistricting county, city and school governing bodies, adopting staggered terms, changing residence requirements to exclude black candidates, and other unlawful tactics: Autauga County-23 percent black; Birmingham-42 percent black; Chambers County-36 percent black; Clarke County-43 percent black; Hale County-63 percent black; Pike County-35 percent black; Selma-50 percent black and Sheffield-19 percent black.
Another indication of the indispensable nature of Section 5 is the evidence that many procedures have been changed without submission to the Justice Department. The department discovered 70 unsubmitted changes in the period following the 1970 extension. Although I do not have complete information on the entire period since 1965, I believe this evasive tactic to be widespread and comparable to the documentation of almost 400 unsubmitted changes in the neighboring state of Georgia during the period.
I can also cite a number of instances of long delays in submissions. In 1969, Washington County, 29 percent black, changed from single-member districts to at-large election of its county commission. This act was not submitted to the attorney general until December 1979. In 1971, Conecuh County, 44 percent black, rearranged its county
commission districts to eliminate a majority black district. Justice Department poll watchers discovered the change nine years later, prompting its submission in 1980.
Such attempts to subvert the law convincingly demonstrate the continued need for the present Section 5 provisions. The danger of Congress permitting the essential elements of the Voting Rights Act to die are real and have already appeared in early form with passage of enactments in my own state to require “reidentification of voters,” as the term is incorrectly stated.
Although it is the task of county boards of registrars to systematically review the voting rolls in order to remove persons disqualified as voters, many boards have hit on “reidentification” as a way to relieve themselves of the burden of their sworn duties, causing legislation to allow a number of boards to completely purge the rolls and require voters to appear before them to “reidentify” as qualified electors. At first glance this may appear a handy, if somewhat lazy, means of making certain the voting rolls are not carrying great numbers of disqualified persons. But “reidentification” must be understood as complete re-registration. The result is the instantaneous lowering of the percentage of black registration, built over the years through painstaking and costly means, to zero.
Although white registration is reduced to zero as well, whites quickly regain high levels of registration. Blacks do not. A case in point is the recent “reidentification” experience in Choctaw, a county with 44 percent black population. A 1978 law mandated “reidentification” there. Surveys reveal that white registration fell by approximately one-fifth. Black registration however, collapsed to only 52 percent of previous levels. Thus, an eight percent difference (54/44) in white-black registration grew to 30 percent (65-35) following “reidentification.”
It is no coincidence that “reidentification” legislation passed in the 1981 session would give boards of registrars in three majority black counties, each with increasing black populations and voting registration, the license to completely purge the rolls and place the burden of registering once again on the voters. Thus, Perry, 60.2 percent black, Sumter, 69.5 percent black, and Wilcox, 68.9 percent black—none ever represented by a black legislator—will force blacks to start from scratch one year prior to the next legislative election. Without Section 5 these techniques cannot be challenged quickly and can become the latest form of disfranchisement.
Such bills, introduced as local legislation, are practically impossible to defeat in the Alabama legislature. Under the rules of each chamber, such legislation is uncontestable unless one represents the particular county affected. A vote against another legislator’s local bill is a breach of the etiquette of the chamber and an open invitation to reprisal against one’s own crucial local measures.
Even with sixteen black legislators in the statehouse, we are simply unable to protect black people from such injurious legislation outside the districts we represent. Without the protection of Section 5, black people in Perry, Sumter, Wilcox and all the other counties away from Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, and Tuskegee have little protection from serious obstacles to black registration and representation.
The era of denial of voting rights is not past in Alabama. The Voting Rights Act functions as the bedrock of civil rights legislation. Should Congress allow the Act to die, blacks and other racial minorities will have the doors to legislative processes slammed in their faces, and the tremendous contribution minorities have just begun to make in government, so especially important in the cities and counties of our nation, will be lost.
James E. Buskey appeared before the US. House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on June 3, 1981.
I am Abigail Turner, an attorney with the Legal Services Corporation of Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. Our staff has represented black citizens in cases charging violations of the Voting Rights Act. To ascertain whether these violations were isolated examples of noncompliance, we conducted a survey of black political participation in Alabama.
The Voting Rights Act led to dramatic increases in registration, candidacy, holding of elective office and voting of formerly disenfranchised black Alabamians. In 1960 prior to the passage of the Act, only 57,500 blacks had registered; this number had grown to over 420,000 in 1980. However, these important advances do not tell the whole story. Barriers to registration and voting still hinder black Alabamians from equal political participation.
In Monroe County where 44 percent of the population is black, 80 percent of the registered voters are white. Black political leaders in that
county report that blacks have been denied registration by the all-white board of registrars because they did not have Social Security cards. They did not have cards because they had never worked in covered employment. Others who were unable to state the name of two registered voters who could vouch for them were denied registration. This voucher requirement is expressly prohibited by the Act, 42 U.S.C. S1973b(c). Alabama law permits boards of registrars to appoint deputy registrars, but the Monroe County Board had refused repeated requests to appoint them.
Pickens County in west Alabama has a 42 percent black population. However, 67 percent of the registered voters are white. Vigorous registration campaigns in that county have confronted stiff opposition. Again, registrars refused to appoint deputy registrars. Persons assisting in the registration campaigns reported that on at least two occasions registrars called the sheriff when groups of blacks appeared to register. The sheriff, a deputy and the courthouse grounds keeper stood over the applicants as they attempted to complete the forms. That had a chilling effect.
In the last two years, the Legal Services Corporation of Alabama has represented clients whose rights to nondiscrimination in voting have been violated. These cases clearly illustrate the effectiveness of the legal tools provided in the Voting Rights Act.
The Town of Clio annexed territory in 1967 and 1976 and did not submit the changes to the Justice Department under Section 5. The United States Attorney General requested submission of the 1976 annexation and warned the town that it could not legally implement the annexation as it affected voting until the town had complied with Section 5. Ignoring this, Clio held municipal elections in July 1980. Persons in the annexed areas voted. An all white five-member council was elected which included two residents from the annexed areas. Clio’s population in 1980, including the annexed areas, was 47 percent black. Mary Gamble, a black citizen, lost her race for town council by five votes. We represented her in filing suit under the Voting Rights Act challenging the failure to preclear the annexations. In March 1981, the three-judge federal court found the annexations violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The court terminated immediately the terms of the two persons residing in the annexed area, and the terms of the remainder of the council and the mayor in 120 days.
Mary Gamble believes she faced serious economic problems because she was a black candidate. Ms. Gamble had a loan, secured by a second mortgage on her home, from the only bank in Clio. The white man who has been Mayor of Clio for more than 25 years is the President of the Bank of Clio. Two weeks before the town council election, the Mayor, President of the Bank, notified her that she had three days to bring her note to a current status. After she filed an election contest in state court, the Mayor came to her house about the note.
No black person was registered to vote in Wilcox County prior to enactment of the Voting Rights Act. With the Act’s passage, federal registrars came to this majority black county and registered several thousand black voters.
In 1978 a black man was elected sheriff of the county and two blacks were elected to the county commission. Before the next local elections in 1980, the Wilcox County Board of Registrars decided to purge voters who had been convicted of disqualifying crimes or had died. Registered voters to be purged were not notified according to state law. They learned that their names were being removed only when the United States Office of Personnel Management, pursuant to the Voting Rights Act, began contacting the persons on the list who had been registered by the federal registrars. One of our client’s name had been removed because of death. Another’s child had died, and the adult’s name had been removed. A third person was removed because of an alleged first degree murder charge; he had never been charged.
The Office of Personnel Management found that many registered voters to be purged were properly registered and had been victims of an inaccurate investigation by the Board of Registrars. Most of the persons on the purge list were black.
When the board proceeded despite the inaccuracies, black citizens complained to the Department of Justice and the Office of Personnel Management. Our clients filed suit to enjoin the purge, so they could vote in the September 1980 primary. The Justice Department observers at the primary insisted that the persons purged be allowed to vote; Justice later disapproved the purgation of federally registered voters. At the preliminary injunction hearing prior to the November 1980 general election, the defendants consented to restore the persons’ names improperly removed and to purge in accord with state and federal law.
The Alabama Legislature in May 1981 enacted a voter reidentification requirement for Wilcox County. Actually the process is a reregistration. The county’s first black sheriff, Prince Arnold, described the effect on black voters: “It took us 15 years to get these people registered. Now we’ll have nine months to do what took 15 years.” The bill requires a voter to appear in person before the board of registrars between the hours of 9:00 and 4:00. The board is only required to sit one day in each location. Voters must complete a questionnaire which includes Social Security number and driver’s license number. The Wilcox County act contains no option to present other identification.
Abigail Turner presented her testimony to the US. House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on June 3, 1981.
Robert R. Woods
My name is Robert R. Woods, a member of the South Carolina State Legislature serving since 1973. I am a member of the Ways and Means Committee, chairman of the Joint Charleston County Legislative Delegation, former Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church and minister of Wallingford United Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where more than 30 percent of the population is black.
Even though the Voting Rights Act has opened some doors in some places throughout South Carolina, there are still far too many doors that remain closed to blacks and other minorities. In areas where there has been conscious effort by public officials to uphold the law, and make efforts to include all persons in the political process, regardless of color or political affiliation, the governments that have emerged reflected these efforts.
Charleston, South Carolina, however, is an example of an area where public officials have eventually accepted the law of the land and strived to implement these laws equitably. Even though there is much to be done in our city to uplift the living conditions of all our citizenry, the city still exemplifies what can happen when all parties work together to bring about an acceptable solution.
Prior to 1975, my city was torn with dissension which had deep racial overtones. Although two blacks had been elected to sit in our city council, most of the minority residents still believed that their needs were not represented by the pre-1975 city government. The two blacks that had served on the city council had been chosen by the predominantly white organizations. Basically, it was impossible to vote for a single candidate, or to field a candidate that was responsive to the needs of my constituents. We had to vote for the entire slate, or not vote at all.
However, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, all of that has changed; and the government now is comprised of persons who truly espouse the views of all citizens. As a result of prodding from the Justice Department and the court-imposed redistricting plan, the city converted from an at-large election scheme which had closed the electoral process to blacks, to a more equitable single-member plan. After this plan was implemented, the black citizens immediately deposed the white-backed black councilmen in favor of black candidates of their choice. At the present time, our city council consists of six blacks and six whites. Our city was selected by the United States League of Cities as an All-American City. I do not believe that my city could have been so honored had it not been for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The Charleston county council and the Charleston county school board cannot boast these achievements. These two bodies still maintain at-large election procedures and only reflect token black representation. The South Carolina Senate also has totally ignored the needs of a full one third of the state’s population. There has not been a black to sit in our State Senate since Reconstruction. The body consists of 46 members, all elected from multi-member, at-large and numbered post. Interestingly enough, the most powerful man in the body is white and represents Calhoun County which is over 55 percent black. This Senator Marion Gressette, formerly headed the Anti-Integration Committee, a group of legislators who organized to halt integration in our state at all cost, also presides over redistricting in the Senate, and has publicly stated that he will wait until the Voting Rights Act expires in 1982 before he tackles the problem of redistricting the South Carolina Senate.
I find it unexplainable that 33 percent of our people are not represented in the upper chamber of our legislature. I am not saying that blacks are required to be represented by blacks, however, I am saying that black Americans have a right to exercise their franchise in a manner that is fully protected by the “Equal Protection Clause” of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
Robert R. Woods presented testimony before the US. House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on June 3, 1981.