Social Justice and Voting Rights in the South

By Webster, Gerald | Southeastern Geographer, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Justice and Voting Rights in the South


Webster, Gerald, Southeastern Geographer


Substantial effort has been expended to define the concept of "social justice" during the past few decades (Merrett 2000, 2004). A broadly acceptable definition of social justice is elusive because of the relative situatedness of the concept in terms of time, space and the group(s) considered. In spite of the amorphous character of the concept, efforts to define social justice are important. As Harvey (1996, 333) states, "no society can do without a working and workable concept of justice any more than it can dispense with workable concepts of space, time, place and nature." The Founding Fathers provided the United States with a limited albeit sexist concept of justice in the Constitution when they included in its Preamble that "All men are created equal... with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (Webster 2000, 2004). Political, social, economic and legal efforts to refine our collective concept of social justice have been made over the past two centuries. While such efforts have been fruitful, they remain incomplete.

Iris Young (1990, 15) argues that "social justice means the elimination of institutionalized domination and oppression." Her "enabling conception of justice" emphasizes "disabling constraints" which result in domination and oppression to create the "institutional conditions necessary for the development and exercise of individual capacities and collective communication and cooperation" (Young 1990, 39; see also Webster 2004). Among those constraints to be disabled are structures that prevent individuals from active participation in decision-making processes. Thus, using political geography as the perspective, what political or geographic structures can be eradicated, altered or developed to facilitate the full inclusion of historically marginalized groups into the political system? Given the South's traditionalistic political culture which has viewed dimly political activity by nonelites, this question arguably has greater currency here than in any other region in the U.S. (Archer and Shelley 1986, 28-33).

THREE EXAMPLES

Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is now 41 yr old and portions of it are set to expire in 2007. Arguably the element of the VRA generating the greatest attention is Section 5 which requires all changes to voting laws in "covered jurisdictions" to be precleared prior to implementation, most commonly by the Department of Justice (DOJ) (e.g., Anderson 2005; Hasen 2005). Thus, each time a new redistricting plan for any government body with a history of discrimination is prepared, it must be reviewed prior to implementation to insure there is no "retrogression" in the political position of minority communities.

Most of the sixteen states wholly or partially covered by Section 5 are located in the South (U.S. Department of Justice 2006). Some of these jurisdictions have argued that Section 5 is no longer required because overt racism in the conduct of elections is a thing of the past. Others have suggested that the process is too cumbersome and expensive given the reduction in racial animus. But Section 5 forces states and localities to seriously consider the implications of voting law changes before submitting them to the DOJ for preclearance. Without Section 5, the past four decades of incremental improvement in minority voting rights could erode (e.g., Ingalls et al. 1997; Leib 1998). Thus, the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act is a direct means of preventing the implementation of institutional constraints limiting access to the political process by minority voters.

Georgia's Voter Identification Law

To find an example of dubious intentions to limit access to the polls, one must look no further than recent events in Georgia. In April 2005, the legislature amended Georgia law to require the presentation of a government issued photo ID as a prerequisite for voting on election day. …

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