I can only hope that the scourge of racism is finally purged from Stewartstown and Pinkham's Grant. These are two of 10 New Hampshire towns covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires local officials to get permission, or "preclearance," on any changes to their election laws.
Stewartstown has just over a thousand souls in it and is 99 percent white. In 1970, when it was put under the authority of Section 5, the census listed two blacks out of its 1,008 residents. Pinkham's Grant boasts nine residents, and it must also beg Washington for permission to make any changes to how it votes.
In 1970, New Hampshire required all of its citizens to pass a literacy test to register to vote. But Pinkham's Grant, Stewartstown and the other eight towns also had low voter-participation rates. These two factors -- a test of any kind for voting and participation rates under 50 percent -- met the criteria for oversight under Section 5.
But after years of onerous preparation, the state filed for a "bailout" from the oversight provisions of Section 5 in November. And although the Justice Department hasn't taken a whole state off its watch list since the early 1980s (back when that hotbed of Jim Crow, Maine, was taken off the list), New Hampshire will probably be let off the hook.
In 2009, the Supreme Court signaled to the Justice Department that the Voting Rights Act was sorely in need of updating. In 1965, the legislation was a radical but necessary response to entrenched, institutionalized racism. Today, blacks vote at a higher rate than whites in many Section 5 jurisdictions, and in others the shortfall is hardly due to anything like Jim Crow. Latino rates are on the rise too.
Nine whole states are still covered; seven of them are from the old Confederacy (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) plus Arizona and Alaska. But there are jurisdictions in parts of Florida, California and the Confederate bastions of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York City that must seek preclearance from Uncle Sam as well.
"The evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance," the high court said in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 vs. Holder.
Justice Clarence Thomas complained that the prospect of getting a bailout -- i.e. getting out from under Section 5 -- is essentially a "mirage." The Justice Department is eager to prove it's not, because the court is hearing a new case this week, Shelby County vs. Holder, which the court could use to throw out the whole regime.
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