Originally created 09/12/06

Georgia leaders urge lawsuits on Voting Rights Act



WASHINGTON - Two Georgia Republicans who spearheaded opposition to this year's extension of the Voting Rights Act are encouraging local governments to sue for "bailout" from a major provision of the law that applies mostly to the South.

U.S. Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood are urging cities and counties to take advantage of language in the law allowing jurisdictions to sue in U.S. District Court in Washington to be exempted from a requirement that they get federal approval before changing voting procedures.

If denied, the jurisdictions would be in a good position to challenge the law's constitutionality, the lawmakers say. So the lawsuits would likely lay the groundwork or be filed in conjunction with broader constitutional challenges.

Mr. Westmoreland, of Grantville, and Mr. Norwood, of Augusta, led a fight earlier this year to block a 25-year extension of the landmark civil rights law. Arguing that it unfairly singles out Southern states, they specifically targeted the Section 5 provision requiring jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to get federal "pre-clearance" before making changes that could affect minority voting, such as moving polling sites or shifting electoral districts.

Their efforts failed, and Congress overwhelmingly approved the law's extension in July.

One jurisdiction in Texas, Northwest Austin Utility District No. 1, already filed lawsuits in Washington last month, just a week after President Bush signed the Voting Rights Act extension. The utility, which has an elected commission, asked to be exempted from pre-clearance requirements. Barring that, the lawsuit calls for the law to be ruled unconstitutional and thrown out.

Mr. Westmoreland, who bore the wrath of civil rights groups over his outspoken opposition to the renewal, said he expects similar lawsuits in Georgia in the coming months.

His spokesman said critics of the law are looking around the state to identify jurisdictions best-suited to file.

Mr. Westmoreland said he also has talked with several state government officials about establishing a taxpayer fund to provide grants or loans for helping local governments pay the legal costs to file for bailout.