A curious factoid: Scott Brown’s hometown used to be a “covered jurisdiction” under the Voting Rights Act

Remember Wrentham?  These days, most people around the state probably associate it with Scott Brown, as in “I’m Scott Brown, I’m from Wrentham, and I drive a truck.”  But until the early 1980s, Wrentham – along with eight other towns in Massachusetts – was one of the “covered jurisdictions” under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That’s right: prior to 1983, if Amherst, Ayer, Belchertown, Bourne, Harvard, Sandwich, Shirley, Sunderland, or Wrentham wanted to make any changes in their voting procedures, they first had to get the approval of the Justice Department, just like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and several other states and jurisdictions still do (at least until the Supreme Court says otherwise).

How can this be?  Did the town of Amherst really have a history of denying African-Americans or anyone else the right to vote?  Here’s the story (from an AP report published in the Globe in 1983) of how the curious inclusion of nine Massachusetts towns in the list of covered jurisdictions came to be:

Because of a quirk in US Census procedures, nine Massachusetts communities appear to discriminate in their election laws, Atty. Gen. Francis X. Bellotti says….

All nine communities have an artificially high number of students or military servicemen, who are listed in the federal census as residents of the community but continue to vote in their hometowns. As a result, less than 50 percent of the adult population of those nine towns voted in the 1968 presidential election.

The communities also used a literacy test or similar voting prerequisite at some time in the past.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, communities that used a literacy test and had less than 50 percent turnout must clear any changes in their local election law ahead of time with federal officials and prove through extensive documentation that there are no unreasonable obstacles to voting.

“It is my position that Massachusetts has never maintained election practices that have the effect of denying individuals of this commonwealth access to the ballot box or the right to hold elective office on account of race or color,” Bellotti said in a written statement.

“Because the act has been applicable in these nine communities as a matter of form rather than substance, it is appropriate to seek its termination,” he said.

Needless to say, Bellotti’s suit (filed under the “bailout” provision of Voting Rights Act section 4) was successful.

Interesting, no?  I love stuff like that.  :-)


8 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. I strongly suspect...

    …that the named towns are also among the whitest in the state:)

  2. Brooklyn, N.Y.

    also is covered. In the 70s Congress added language to the list of issues. Brooklyn had a history of making it harder for Spanish speakers to vote, so…

    Seems to me most towns in Massachusetts outside a handful of cities are over 95% white. Seems from the description given in the post those towns were not discriminating at all, but were caught in a definitional trap due to “residents” for census purposes voting elsewhere, thus driving down their “turnout.”

    That would apply to plenty of locales nationwide. How many are covered? I imagine in most such cases no case was brought.

    • It's all in how you write the rules

      On a side note, the school districts in Massachusetts that are still under court orders to actively desegregate their schools are the cities with the most non-whites. The criteria is that a race’s percentage within a school isn’t supposed to vary by more than 10% from the district’s average.

      Meanwhile, towns with schools that are 99% white are absurdly not considered to be segregated, because the students in their districts are also 99% white.

      • A nationwide issue

        The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974, in a case out of Michigan, that school districts could only be placed under desegregation orders from the courts upon a showing that the particular district had engaged in a pattern of intentional discrimination. Virtually impossible to show in local districts where the population was 99% white; such districts hadn’t engaged in intentional segregation because they hadn’t needed to.

        The Court further specified that districts not shown to have deliberately segregated could not be included in a remedy for segregation in another city’s schools. That is, you could not desegregate the Boston schools by including all those white kids from the suburbs in a regional busing plan. The fact that the suburbs were exempt, to my mind, had no small role in ginning up resentment of busing in white Boston neighborhoods.

        • Zoning out the others

          I know someone who was bused from a Detroit suburb into Detroit in the 70′s. She spent 3 hours a day on a bus. That clearly wasn’t the way to go.

          At the crux of all of this is economic segregation. If that problem can be solved, many other problems will topple. A large pillar of economic segregation is zoning. That is how communities keep out less wealthy people (many of which happen to not be white). Eliminate the concept of zoning laws and you’ll find a lot of Republicans will instantly become socialist interventionist big-government types to get it restored.

          • This must have been

            early 70s. That’s the plan the USSC struck down in ’74.

            I know someone who was bused from a Detroit suburb into Detroit in the 70′s. She spent 3 hours a day on a bus. That clearly wasn’t the way to go.

    • There are a few communities in NH that are covered.

      Not sure what earned them a spot on the list.

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Fri 28 Apr 2:33 AM