Changed Voting Act could affect isle elections
Hawaii, a state without a history of voting discrimination complaints, could become the only state fully covered by a law requiring federal oversight of elections.
A proposed amendment to the Voting Rights Act would change the law to apply to states with less than half of eligible voters going to the polls in any of the last three presidential elections.
Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout in the nation in the last two presidential elections, with 44 percent of the eligible voting-age population voting in 2000 and 51 percent in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
No other state had fewer than 50 percent of its citizens vote, so the act, if amended, would apply only to Hawaii as a state. It would still apply to individual counties in other states that have low turnout.
The Voting Rights Act, passed by Congress in 1965 and primarily aimed at ending abuses that prevented black citizens from voting, is now up for renewal in the U.S. House.
The amendment, proposed by Georgia Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood, has been passed out of the House Rules Committee for consideration by the full House. There is no guarantee it will be attached to the final bill.
"We're concerned over whether or not there is a correlation between turnout and perceived violations" if the amendment passes, said Rex Quidilla, Hawaii's voting services coordinator. "The elections process in Hawaii has a long reputation of being open, honest and secure."
Federal oversight of Hawaii's elections would mean that the state could not change its election laws without federal approval, and elections would be monitored by the Department of Justice. The law currently affects jurisdictions in 16 states, mostly in the South.
"The whole point of the Voting Rights Act is to get to states and jurisdictions that have historic and ongoing problems of discrimination," said Deborah Vagins, policy counsel with the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "In the currently covered states, there is still ongoing discrimination against minorities."
Vagins said the proposal would weaken the Voting Rights Act by enforcing it in states where it is not needed and removing it from areas where it is.
Hawaii Reps. Ed Case and Neil Abercrombie, both Democrats, voiced reservations about making changes to the Voting Rights Act.
"Congressman Case opposes the amendment because it guts the Voting Rights Act by removing that pre-clearance requirement for states with a history of voting discrimination," said Case spokesman Randy Obata. "He doesn't believe we as a country are at a point where we can afford to do that."
Abercrombie supports the current law and does not think Hawaii has the same tradition of election problems found in other states, said spokesman Mike Slackman.
Supporters of the amendment see the need for fairness in determining statewide federal oversight, which has mostly applied to Southern states.
"It provides uniform enforcement nationwide so the whole country would be judged under the same rules," said John Stone, a spokesman for Norwood.