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. :-)