GOP has tough choices on Voting Rights Act

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Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who helped lead the law’s latest reauthorization when the GOP ran Congress in 2006, said the court “disappointed” him. Lingering discrimination, he said, compels Congress to update the act, “especially for minorities.”

“There’s no easy answer” for the GOP, said Henry Barbour, a high-profile member of the Republican National Committee. The Mississippi native conceded his personal views demonstrate the complications.

Barbour helped write the national party’s post-election analysis calling for better outreach to minorities and urged fellow Republicans that “our tone is important, on this and any other issue.” But he’s clear in his support for the decision and what it means in Mississippi.

Blatantly racist laws like poll taxes and literacy tests once made preclearance necessary, Barbour said. “But when you have to go hat-in-hand to Washington every time you want to move a polling place,” then it’s evolved into “federal harassment that’s gone on way too long,” he added.

Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said Congress is capable of writing a new national formula based on the latest voter registration and turnout data “if everyone will sit back and take a deep breath.”

Barbour disputed that forecast, but not because of opposition from Southerners. Rather, he said, “People in these other states don’t want this scrutiny coming to them.”

That frustration reflects part of the 2006 renewal debate in Congress. Despite fewer than three dozen dissenting votes, some Southern members said the extra scrutiny should apply nationwide or not at all.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who supported ending preclearance, said Republicans should emphasize parts of the act still in use. Besides a general discrimination ban, the feds can invoke preclearance for jurisdictions with new patterns of mistreating minorities. That “opt-in” rule has affected Arkansas, New Mexico and some cities and counties.

Others in the GOP say election results form a defense. Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina party chairman, noted that Gov. Nikki Haley, of Indian descent, appointed then-Rep. Tim Scott as the modern South’s first black U.S. senator. He’ll seek a full term next year.

“We’re walking the walk,” Dawson said.

Of course, Southern states also produced the widest margins among White voters in favor of Mitt Romney and John McCain in their losses to Obama.

Chris LaCivita, a Republican consultant in Virginia, offered one more potential comfort for Republicans: The relationship between Democrats and Whites. Republicans need more minority votes in presidential years, but Democrats need more White Southerners if they want to regain control of Congress or many statehouses.

“Democrats might want to think long and hard about making a racially based argument,” LaCivita said, “considering voters they need don’t like having to pay for the sins of their fathers.”

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Follow Barrow on Twitter @BillBarrowAP.

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