Friday, July 14, 2006

Renewal of Voting Rights Act clears House without revision

Renewal of Voting Rights Act clears House without revision
By Johanna Neuman
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published July 14, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a 25-year renewal of the landmark Voting Rights Act, but only after a cadre of Republican conservatives defied party leaders by pressing ahead with unsuccessful--and controversial--efforts to revise the measure.

They tried to modify what is often called the crown jewel of the civil rights movement by shortening the bill's life and repealing its requirement that bilingual ballots be provided to minority voters.

The proposed changes, derided by the bill's sponsors as "stabbing the Voting Rights Act in the heart," were defeated only because of a coalition between virtually all of the chamber's 201 Democrats and its Republican leaders.

"Republicans and Democrats have united in a historic vote to preserve and protect one of America's most important fundamental rights--the right to vote," House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a statement after the 390-33 vote.

Hastert did not mention that a majority of Republicans voted for most of the efforts to modify the law.

The public display of GOP dissension was a blow to Republican strategists at the White House, who had hoped an election-year renewal of the act would boost the party's appeal to minority voters in the fall elections.

Senate turmoil expected

The bill still faces turmoil in the Senate. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), said he wanted the committee to consider the bill on Wednesday, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has not scheduled floor action. In addition, some senators, such as Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), are echoing some of the concerns raised by their House counterparts.

The all-day House debate was emotional, resonating with the echoes of the nation's violent history of voter discrimination.

"I was beaten. I have a concussion. I almost died," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), holding up a photograph of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, where state troopers attacked protesters with bursts from fire hoses and beat them with batons. "I gave a little blood, but some of my colleagues gave their very lives."

But those who wanted to modify the law's expiring features--including a requirement for Justice Department oversight of voting laws in states, most of them Southern, with a history of discrimination--argued that the South had been punished enough.

"The House is voting today to keep my state in the penalty box for 25 more years based on the actions of people who are now dead," Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said.

In the initial decades after the Civil War, African-Americans voted in high numbers. But in the first years of the 20th Century, as lynching grew, so did state-sanctioned poll taxes, literacy taxes and even violence against blacks who attempted to register to vote. Only after the civil rights movement of the 1960s--including passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965--did African-Americans again vote in great numbers, electing record numbers of black officials.

Opponents argued that Florida and Ohio, where there have been accusations of electoral irregularities in the last few years, should also be required to clear their voting law changes with the Justice Department. Otherwise, they said, the law unfairly targets the South for its history, not its present record.

Bilingual ballots at issue

Another issue was an attempt to repeal the law's requirement that states and localities provide bilingual ballots and materials to minority voters in places where they are at least 5 percent of the electorate. California prints ballots in seven languages, according to the secretary of state's office in Sacramento.

Proponents argued that bilingual ballots are needed mostly by citizens, born in the United States, who are more comfortable reading a ballot in the language of their parents. But opponents countered that bilingual ballots are an unfunded mandate, forcing states to pick up the costs. Of the four amendments defeated in the House, three had the support of a majority of the chamber's 231 Republicans. Only the suggestion that the act be extended to cover other jurisdictions was defeated by majorities of both Republicans and Democrats.

Except for Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin lawmakers who voted supported the 25-year renewal of the law.

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