Voting Rights in Edgefield County
By Laughlin Mcdonald
Vol. 6, No. 3, 1984, pp. 13-14
Edgefield is a small, rural county in South Carolina, lapped along its western boundary by the stately Savannah River. Local residents work on farms, pick the peaches that ripen each year in the hard, often savage, heat of early summer or drive to nearby Aiken and Augusta for regular city jobs. The principal town and county seat is also called Edgefield. On most days it appears deserted, except for a granite monument in the middle of the town square that keeps a mute but perpetual vigil for the Confederate dead. A handful of stores just off the square advertise U-Need-A-Biscuits, dry goods and second-hand shoes. The trade, however, is indifferent.
Across the way stands the historic old courthouse, the shutters drawn tightly against its graceful floor-to-ceiling-length windows. Upstairs in the quiet and musty chamber of the main courtroom, faded photographs and oil paintings of Edgefield’s most famous native sons hang from the walls in solemn and numerous procession–Thomas Hugh Wardlaw, the author of South Carolina’s Articles of Secession, Preston Smith Brooks, the Congressman who knocked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner insensible to the floor of the Senate with a gutta percha cane for making an anti-slavery speech and unfavorable comments about a favorite uncle, General Martin Witherspoon Gary, the famed “Bald Eagle of the Confederacy,” B. R. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a reconstruction era terrorist who later led the movement for “legal” disfranchisement of South Carolina blacks, ten governors, any number of congressmen and judges, and Senator Strom Thurmond, who, during most of his political career, was foremost in the fight for white supremacy and against effective civil right laws.
Edgefield County, taking a chapter out of its rich Confederate past, recently returned to confrontation and open racial controversy when it refused to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by submitting for preclearance its 1966 law adopting at-large elections. Jurisdictions such as Edgefield which have long, aggravated histories of discrimination in voting are required by Section 5 of the Act to preclear any new election practice, either by submitting it to the Department of Justice or by bringing a law suit in the federal courts for the District of Columbia and proving that the practice does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect. Edgefield refused to do either, despite the fact that the attorney General notified local officials that the county’s at-large elections were unenforceable.
Prior to 1966, Edgefield’s county government was appointed by the Governor upon the recommendation of the local legislative delegation. This system of appointed government had been established throughout the state by Tillman when he was Governor in 1894 as a way of insuring that blacks could not elect locally their own representatives. The appointed system worked just as Tillman envisioned it would–no black ever served on Edgefield’s county government. The appointed system was changed in 1966, however, in part because of reapportionment and the likelihood that Edgefield would lose resident members of its legislative delegation by being paired with a more populous neighboring county.
The new form of government established for Edgefield in 1966 was a three member council elected at-large. Although the new procedures were clearly covered by Section 5, the county made no effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Blacks subsequently ran for the county council on numerous occasions, but because a majority of Edgefield’s voters are white, and because voting is strictly
along racial lines, no black was ever able to win a council seat. Indeed, no black in this century has ever won a contested at-large election in Edgefield.
In 1971 Edgefield amended its 1966 law to enlarge the county council from three to five members. This time it requested the Attorney General to approve the voting change. It did not, however, request preclearance of the earlier 1966 legislation, nor did it indicate that at-large elections were a post-Voting Rights Act election change nor that an appointed system of local government had ever been in effect. The Attorney General, after reviewing the increase in size of the council, concluded that it did not have a discriminatory purpose or effect and granted preclearance.
In December of 1980, blacks in Edgefield learned for the first time that the county was using at-large elections illegally after a search of documents by the Department of Justice turned up the fact that the 1966 Act had never been submitted for review, and after the Attorney General wrote local officials a formal “please submit” letter. When the county refused to make a submission, a group of local blacks brought suit asking that the federal district court enjoin any further use of at-large voting until the county complied with the Voting Rights Act.
The district court dismissed the Edgefield County blacks’ complaint, concluding that the Attorney General–despite his assertions to the contrary,–had in fact precleared the 1966 Act, and, moreover, that the legal effect of -preclearing the 1971 increase in size amendment was to preclear the underlying 1966 Act adopting at-large elections. On February 21, 1984 a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. McCain v. Lybrand, 104 S. Ct. 1037 (1984).
The Court held that the Attorney General had not considered and precleared at-large elections in Edgefield County when he precleared the increase in size of the council in 1971, and that there was no such thing as constructive, or legally implied, preclearance. According to the Court, the Voting Rights Act requires that covered jurisdictions submit their election law changes to the Attorney General “in some unambiguous and recordable manner…with a request for his consideration pursuant to the Act.” Edgefield had done neither.
Edgefield has not been alone in failing to comply with the preclearance requirements of Section 5. From 1965 through 1968, neither Mississippi, Louisiana nor North Carolina submitted a single voting change for Section 5 review. Alabama submitted one in 1965, but none for the next three years. Georgia made only one submission during the first three years of the Act, and Virginia made none. Submissions have increased sharply in recent years (the current rate is approximately 1,000 submissions a month from all covered jurisdictions), but surveys by the Department of Justice, the Southern Regional Council and others reveal that Section 5 jurisdictions are still using hundreds of uncleared voting practices, such as Edgefield’s at-large elections.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Edgefield County case closes a possible loop hole to the many jurisdictions which continue to violate Section 5. No longer can they claim that once they precleared any amendment to an unsubmitted voting practice, the unsubmitted practice itself was also precleared by implication. A contrary ruling would have allowed covered jurisdictions to play a kind of shell game with Section 5 by enacting innocuous amendments to fundamentally discriminatory voting practices, and contending that preclearance of the former constituted approval of the latter.
McCain v. Lybrand may be a break with the racial and political traditions to places such as Edgefield where blacks have been excluded from the electorate and where the Voting Rights Act has been ignored, but it is a positive step in the direction of enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment and realizing its promise of equal political participation for all citizens.
Laughlin McDonald is director of the Southern Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union.