By ZACK PLAIR
Times have changed and race relations in Mississippi have certainly improved since 1965.
On that point, both Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Glenn Hamilton and the county’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Chris Taylor adamantly agree.
But when discussing whether the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires federal involvement in decisions that involve Mississippi’s election process, that’s where Hamilton’s and Taylor’s opinions differ.
The Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the Shelby County v. Holder case Wednesday, where the Alabama county has challenged the validity of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires the Department of Justice to “pre-clear” any election law changes in certain states. Right now, nine entire states, mostly in the South and including Mississippi, are subject to Section 5, as well as parts of seven other states.
Hamilton, in his first term as circuit clerk, said the law had essentially become an “accepted way of life” in Mississippi, but admitted it had caused occasional obstructions to the local election process.
Specifically, Hamilton cited the 2011 primary where a voting precinct had to be relocated because the National Guard Armory was being remodeled. Although Hamilton said the county moved the precinct to an adjacent building, it still required Justice Department approval.
Hamilton said the most recent local instance where Section 5 affected his office came in the special election earlier this year to replace District 16 State Sen. Bennie Turner, who passed away last November. The district includes a portion of Oktibbeha and some voting districts Hamilton said included as few as seven registered voters. But state law required them to provide poll sheriffs and three voting machines for those precincts for 12 hours on election day because amending the rules would have required DOJ approval and could have delayed the process.
“Simply because it was a change, it was subject to pre-approval,” Hamilton said. “Those are nuances that had we not been under Section 5, we would have had more discretion to solve those minor issues.”
On a broader scale, Mississippi voters supported requiring voters to show identification at the polls in November 2011, according to Hamilton, and that decision is still pending DOJ approval.
Hamilton said his office was prepared to deal with whatever outcome in the Supreme Court case, but he said things like Section 5 represented an “antiquated and misconstrued viewpoint” of Mississippi by the outside world.
“I think Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state,” he said. “You can look at that two ways — either the Voting Rights Act worked or that it may no longer be necessary to have our elections supervised by the federal government. Or it could be both.”
Taylor, however, argued that overturning Section 5 would give states it now affected a “free hand to do whatever they want.” He said with Mississippi’s Republican-controlled legislature, that would not bode well for minorities, especially with issues like voter ID and redistricting.
“I think there would be gerrymandering and everything else,” Taylor said. “With a Republican-led (state legislature), they could draw those districts however they wanted and keep their districts to where they would remain in power.”
The voter ID issue, he said, would “intimidate” older voters but he didn’t believe it would impact younger voters as much. He said the Supreme Court’s decision would not change his voting either way.
“Regardless of what they do, it won’t affect me personally,” he said. “I’m going to keep voting and I have an I.D. to show when I do.”
Through his work with the NAACP, Taylor said he had not seen a local case of hatred between races in recent years. Yet he said the state as a whole still had work to do to heal the wounds of the past.
“The scars are deep, but they will eventually heal, especially as the older generation passes,” he said. “The younger generation didn’t have quite those same experiences, but history will always be there.”
Hamilton said he realized and vaguely remembered some of Mississippi’s past instances of racial inequality, going so far as to call the fact that some African-Americans were treated the way they were “sickening.” But he said today, he didn’t think anyone “with the ability to be elected” would oppress anyone’s right to vote. He said he could say for certain his office would not engage in such practices, even if Section 5 was overturned.
“There’s only one way to run an election and that’s fair and open to everyone qualified to participate.”