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Tuesday, Feb 12 2013 11:00 PM

MILT YOUNGER: Federal oversight still needed to protect voters from 'snafus'

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    Milt Younger

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Attracted by warm weather, white beaches and low taxes, a California couple moved to a coastal retirement community in a Southern state last year. They bought a small house, established a circle of retiree friends and registered to vote so they could cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election.

The state's March primary election came and went, and they missed out on voting. They felt real bad about that. They had always voted when they lived in California. But they chalked up their failure to the "busy" stuff of moving. Somehow elections correspondence must have gotten lost in the mail.

But as the November general election -- the one in which people cast their votes for important offices, such as president -- approached, they became concerned.

As registered voters in California, they would receive correspondence from county elections officials in advance of an election. They received voting instructions, information about polling places, a sample ballot, and a thick booklet with information about the ballot measures and candidates.

But in their new Southern home, they received nothing. Had some bureaucratic snafu caused their registrations to be lost?

When they called the county's elections office, they were reassured that they were, in fact, registered to vote. But if they wanted to know where to vote and what was on the ballot, they would have to come into the elections office or check a county website.

When my friends showed up at their polling place on Election Day, they were handed an oversize (about 81/2-inch-by-14-inch) stiff, cardboard ballot. Besides partisan races for president, Congress, local offices and numerous judgeships, there were 12 local "measures" on the ballot.

When they made their choices, my friends were instructed to hand their open (not folded) ballots to a poll worker, who gave the ballots a quick glance and then fed them into a counting machine.

It was an unsettling experience for my California friends who had spent a lifetime voting by "secret" ballot in a system steeped in "outreach" efforts that encouraged everyone -- not just people in the "know" -- to vote.

Ironically, my friends now live in a state where an affluent, predominantly white county, Shelby County, Ala., has sued the federal government, contending Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Lower courts have found against Shelby County's claims. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case and is expected to rule by the end of June.

Congress has renewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 several times, most recently in 2006, during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush.

Section 5 of the act requires that the federal government review proposed changes to local voting procedures in areas that have engaged in past acts of discrimination. Most of these areas are in the South. But Section 5 also applies to a smattering of communities throughout the nation, including four California counties -- Kings, Merced, Monterey and Yuba.

Shelby County is a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., which many regard as the epicenter of the violent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Shelby County officials contend much has changed in the South since those days. Blacks can easily vote and have been elected to local and state offices. They claim continued federal scrutiny is not necessary and violates the state's constitutional right to establish its own elections procedures. But while black voters may no longer fear dogs and guns when they try to vote in Alabama, my friends' experience would indicate minorities and "not in the know" newcomers may not be all that welcomed today.

And note the political tricks pulled in several states last year that left voters waiting in lines for up to nine hours to cast ballots. Federal officials also had to intervene last year to block voter ID laws and redistricting efforts that the courts concluded denied minorities and low-income people their right to vote.

When Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, it was to end an era when blacks were brutally being denied their right to vote. Today, slick politicians still are trying to do the same thing.

Milton Younger of Bakersfield is a longtime personal injury attorney. Contact him through his website, miltonyoungerlaw.com. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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