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How Long is Long Enough? 

The feds are keeping Louisiana under their thumb with the Voting Rights Act and only a few voices have sprouted up to call for a reprieve from certain provisions.

Who in their right mind, especially during the heated throws of an election cycle, would oppose the National Voting Rights Act of 1965? It's a landmark piece of legislation, after all, that righted systematic wrongs in the way America votes. It prohibits local governments from forcing people to take a literacy test or pay a fee to vote and can be credited for boosting minority registration across the South.

The law, however, has been drawing opposition from southern lawmakers in recent months, but not as a result of racial politics. Most of the popular mechanisms from the Voting Rights Act are already set in stone and don't require a renewal from Congress, but three temporary provisions of the act were set to expire in 2007 -- and lawmakers extended them for another 25 years over the summer.

Among other things, the provisions force nine mostly southern states, including Louisiana, to clear all changes regarding voting policy and procedure with the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C. It briefly became a touchy issue on the national level, but, as fundamental as it is, the issue hasn't received much play in Louisiana.

Only one congressman from Louisiana opposed the extension, bucking his party and drawing some attention and editorials as a consequence. Meanwhile, only two of the three major candidates for secretary of state, the position that oversees state elections, are willing to discuss the topic. The candidates interviewed for this story agree that a forceful hand in local matters was justified during times of racial unrest decades ago, but it's unfair to continue the practice for another 25 years.

On the other hand, hasn't Louisiana, with it's storied political past, earned a bit of additional oversight from the federal government? Not so, says Jim Brown, who served as secretary of state during the early 1980s. It tags Louisiana as a "second-rate state" and the requirements are burdensome and embarrassing, he says. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, for instance, was recently told by a federal court that he must seek Justice Department approval before he could make an appointment to the Mobile County Commission.

"Any changes in procedures surrounding the voting process must be pre-approved by the Justice Department," Brown says, "and I mean any. Changes in precinct boundaries, polling locations, legislative districts, ballot formats -- all have to be pre-approved. If a precinct location is moved one foot, permission has to be granted. Not so in most other states.

"Every candidate for secretary of state should take a strong stand on this important issue," Brown adds.

The top three candidates for the post were contacted several times to discuss the extension of the Voting Rights Act. Only Mike Francis, a Crowley native and former chair of the Louisiana Republican Party, avoided the subject.

"He said that anyone elected secretary of state would have to administer the Voting Rights Act and he didn't feel it was appropriate to comment on an act he would be administering," says Dan Kyle, former legislative auditor and new spokesperson for the Francis campaign. "It might give the impression he is biased one way or another."

Another candidate for secretary of state, State Sen. Jay Dardenne, a Republican from Baton Rouge, agrees with Brown that the state's highest elections officer has a fairly limited role in administering the act -- and that many officials don't understand or just choose to ignore the issue.

"That's just an unwillingness to take a stance on the issue," Dardenne says. "I think Louisiana and the South ought to be treated like everyone else in the nation. I don't think the section requiring us to obtain advance approval is appropriate. We are fully capable of conducting fair elections."

State Sen. Francis C. Heitmeier, a New Orleans Democrat who also is running for secretary of state, says the procedure isn't fair to Louisiana, but there's no use getting worked up about it. "I have no problem being under the Justice Department because we're going to do things right anyway," Heitmeier says.

In Georgia, two Republican lawmakers have turned the debate into a congressional campaign issue by urging local governments to sue in court to seek a "bailout" from the pre-approval provision. Even if the suits are unsuccessful, it could lay the groundwork for challenging the act's constitutionality.

Back in Louisiana, the matter has yet to crop up in the congressional races. U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, is among the few candidates with something to shout about -- he was one of only two congressional freshmen invited by President Bush to the act's signing in July. He was invited primarily because he was a strong, white, southern voice of support for the extension.

On the other side of the spectrum is Congressman Richard Baker, a Baton Rouge Republican. He became the state's highest-profile critic of the act when he stood against his party, his president and his state delegation to oppose the renewal. While going against the tide is nothing new for the policy maverick, Baker says it was necessary to keep Louisiana off the list of "usual suspects" and to maintain an honest assessment of the act.

If anything, it'll keep the debate going, he adds.

"I fully realize that my vote was neither the politically correct nor the politically expedient one to cast," Baker says, "but I also strongly believe it was the principled and right thing to do."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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