Ruling affects two townships in Michigan

By Corey Williams
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court exempts two small Michigan townships with sizeable numbers of Spanish-speaking residents from needing federal approval before making changes to local voting laws.

The high court — in a 5-4 vote — declared unconstitutional a section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that determines which states and localities must get Washington’s approval for proposed elections.

Clyde Township, in West Michigan’s Allegan County, and Buena Vista Township in Saginaw County on the other side of the state needed pre-clearance from the Justice Department.

The advance approval requirement had been used mainly in Southern states, giving federal officials a tool against efforts to keep blacks from voting.

The provision required governments that were covered to demonstrate their proposed changes would not discriminate.

“This does not mean there will be any other major changes” in voting laws, Michigan Elections Director Chris Thomas said of Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling. “The Voting Rights Act still is in effect and says you cannot discriminate.”

The requirement applied to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

In addition to Clyde and Buena Vista townships, it also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

“Let’s be clear, the Supreme Court today struck down a specific provision of the Voting Rights Act, but they did not strike down the principle behind it — that all citizens must have equal opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” Michigan Department of Civil Rights spokeswoman Vicki Levengood said in a statement.

“The court invalidated the part of the law that subjected certain jurisdictions to a higher level of scrutiny based on data and findings that were 50 years old. The court did
not find anything wrong with the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement provisions themselves, only with Congress’ failure to ensure that any decision to subject some states or counties to a higher burden than others was based on recent, and not only historical, problems,” Levengood said.

The Michigan townships fell under the coverage in the mid-1970s, according to Michigan’s Secretary of State office.

Just over 10 percent of the 6,800 Buena Vista township residents were described in the 2010 U.S. Census as Hispanic or Latino.

Clyde Township had 2,084 people, with 718 describing themselves as Hispanic or Latino.

After the 1970 Census, the rural township south of Fennville fell under the act because it had a large number of Hispanic residents who did not speak English, said Joyce Watts, Allegan County clerk.

Many were seasonal workers, she told The Associated Press Tuesday.

“Many were non-citizens, so counting them for voting purposes really did not make a lot of sense, but had to have been done,” Watts said.

When requested, the county prints Clyde Township elections ballots in both English and Spanish.

Watts said she once was given short notice to have ballots printed up for Spanish-speaking voters and attempted to do the translation herself.

Before they were printed, Watts was told her translation read: “Go into the nearest box and make the sign of the cross.”

“From that point on we did get professional translations,” said Watts, who added that she plans to speak with the county’s attorney about the Supreme Court ruling.

The provision of the Voting Rights Act came into play in 2011 when Allegan County reduced the number of commissioners for the county board from 11 to seven.

 The U.S. Justice Department had to make sure the redistricting plan did not diminish the influence of those Hispanic residents.

The AP left messages Tuesday seeking comment from clerk offices in Clyde and Buena Vista townships.