N.H. Awaits Voting Rights Act ‘Bailout’

Saturday, March 02, 2013
Unity — As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs arguments over a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, New Hampshire is seeking a “bailout” from having to comply with the piece of the landmark civil rights law in question.

Unity is among the 10 towns in the Granite State required to “pre-clear” any changes in voting laws with federal authorities under Section 5 of the law.

In December, the U.S. Department of Justice reached an agreement with the state to exempt New Hampshire towns from the preclearance requirements. The agreement needs court approval and is pending before the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., according to Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson.

The preclearance provision under Section 5 has been credited with boosting the political inclusion of minorities since it was passed 48 years ago. But the law’s detractors say it was designed during a different time, when racial discrimination was much more widespread, and is no longer necessary.

Nine states, mostly in the South, and jurisdictions in other states that include New Hampshire are subject to the law. They are required to clear any changes in voting qualifications, standards, practices or procedures by the U.S. District Court or the U.S. attorney general prior to implementing them.

The law is being challenged in the Supreme Court by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb that is arguing the state bears no resemblance to the racially divided place that the law intended to address in 1965.

New Hampshire’s towns got caught up in the law for a couple of reasons. First, the state had a literacy test as a voter qualification on the books in 1968, a key trigger date for application of the Voting Rights Act. The literacy test was enacted in 1903 and has since been repealed. Second, federal officials said records indicated that less than 50 percent of the voting age population in those 10 towns either registered or voted in the 1968 presidential election.

In December, the Justice Department said New Hampshire appeared to meet the criteria for a bailout, which can be issued only if the jurisdictions meet certain requirements, including a 10-year record of nondiscrimination in voting-related actions.

“In the department’s view, these covered towns and townships have met the requirements necessary for bailout,” Thomas Perez, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general in the civil rights division, said in a statement in December. “We reached this conclusion after thoroughly reviewing information provided by the state and the covered jurisdictions gathered during the department’s independent investigation.”

Granite State officials have long maintained that the towns were needlessly caught up by the law. New Hampshire at the time was more than 99 percent white, making the suggestion of systemic voter discrimination moot.

Not much has changed in the state’s racial makeup since. New Hampshire was 95 percent white in 2011, according to the U.S. Census.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.