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The city’s effort to redraw 46-year-old precinct lines still has a few concerned about suppression of the black vote. Evidence points to the contrary.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
A recent Supreme Court ruling relieved Roanoke of the obligation to seek approval from the U.S. Justice Department before making any changes to its election system. Yet Roanoke viewed the preclearance requirement as a safeguard, rather than a burden. And now some wonder whether the court’s decision will tamp the momentum to reduce the number of voting precincts in Roanoke from 32 to 20.
It shouldn’t. The precinct realignment plan aims to restore balance and ease hardships that have wormed their way into a 46-year-old system.
Roanoke officials, ever timid of stirring dormant concerns of racial oppression, have been reluctant to overhaul a voting system adopted in 1967 — a time when concerns were real. Some have expressed hope that Justice, though not required, will still “preclear” changes at the request of a locality. There’s no harm in Roanoke asking, or in Justice reviewing, especially if it allays lingering resistance.
But if that safety net is not available, Roanoke council members will need to act knowing that the plan soon before them is fair, well-developed and much considered. The public was afforded ample opportunities to weigh in, and the final plan emerged from a special committee set up to vet all that work — a committee appointed specifically to represent the diverse viewpoints of Roanoke voters.
Whether there is one precinct or 50, minority votes in Roanoke cannot be diluted, as the mayor and city council members are elected at large by the popular vote; two of the seven current members are African-American.
Once the city attorney finishes writing the ordinance, it should come before council without delay, as it is the current system that places a hardship on voters. Populations have shifted during the last 40 years and have left an uneven distribution of voters, meaning long lines with too few polling books, voting machines and poll workers to serve some precincts, and limited choices in selecting suitable polling places that accommodate waiting crowds and disabled voters.
The new, reduced precinct plan seeks to amend those wrongs.
Once the plan is adopted, the task then is for the election board — again working with voters and any concerned groups — to scout for the best location within each precinct.
Roanoke officials have a track record of striving for fair elections: a safety net knitted by reputation and community involvement and one undoubtedly stronger than a preclearance requirement.
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