Has Charleston outgrown voting discrimination?

Lawyer wants county exempted from federal preclearance

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To Larry Kobrovsky, this is not the Charleston of the 1960s. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 requires nine mostly Southern states to check in with the U.S. Justice Department before making any changes to voting procedures, including things like moving polling places or shifting legislative districts. The law was created to combat poll taxes or literacy tests that were administered with deference to whites.

"It was absolutely necessary then," Kobrovsky says. "Now, it's a form of racial quotas in election law."

He plans to ask the courts to exempt Charleston County from the preclearance requirements in the Voting Rights Act. This would allow Charleston to make election decisions without Washington's OK. Kobrovsky says the law is unnecessary, at least in the Lowcountry. He notes that a majority of the county's voters supported Tim Scott in 2010 and President Barack Obama two years earlier. They're both black men. "If voters had made their decisions based on race, they wouldn't have picked them," he says.

It is an interesting argument, but it won't get Charleston out of the doghouse. It's not just enough that minorities can get elected or find support. The Voting Rights Act is about the African-American community knowing that their vote counted, that their values are being represented.

And how do you do that without oversight? This belief that we're beyond the racial divide will be put to the test in the next year as the Republican-controlled Statehouse begins drawing a 7th Congressional district. GOP legislative leaders have already said they'll be crafting a Republican district. A South Carolina delegation representative of its population would mean a second majority black district. If that is the map that comes out of the legislature, I'll eat my hat. Kobrovsky says any voter should be obliged to challenge a map in court. The point he's arguing is that we shouldn't have to get Washington's prior approval.

"There's still a duty to make sure any precinct changes are fair and not discriminatory, but there are laws in effect for that," he says. "I don't think our right to self government should be taken away."

Kobrovsky rightly points out that another majority black district may not do the African-American community any favors — that consolidating all of these like-minded voters into their own districts has essentially isolated their influence in South Carolina politics. Using Democrat Linda Ketner's close congressional race against Republican incumbent Henry Brown in 2008 as an example, Kobrovsky notes that faithful Democratic voters in Charleston County were siphoned off to fill Congressman Jim Clyburn's district. "If the Voting Rights Act wasn't in place, Linda Ketner would be the congresswoman from the 1st District."

The legal argument is a toss up. The state legislature is currently debating high-profile legislation that would require a photo ID to vote, and there are already cries that it will disenfranchise black voters. But, in a case last year, the Supreme Court seemed ready to revisit the Voting Rights Act. The case involved the ability of a Texas utility district to optout of the preclearance requirements. The court didn't decide on the related constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. But the overwhelming opinion of the court clearly suggested it was a fair question. Particularly, they worried about whether "extraordinary legislation" drafted for "exceptional conditions" decades ago still applied today.

"The act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs," the court wrote. "In part due to the success of that legislation, we are now a very different nation."

But this isn't a legal argument in a vacuum. Kobrovsky recognizes that emotions are driving opposition to his plan. There are African-American voters today who were chased away from the polls years ago. Kobrovsky's point may go down better in a few decades when the legislature has a chance to revisit the law. Obama and Scott's elections may not have resolved the concerns of the African-American community, but another 20 years of progress just might.

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