The Voting Rights Act's reauthorization recently suffered a political setback in the U.S. House of Representatives after the Republican leadership caved into opposition by a small group of right-wing extremists, abruptly canceling a vote on extending provisions of the historic 1965 law that are set to expire next year.
In a surprise reversal, U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Republican leaders took the legislation off the House calendar on June 21, with promises to renew efforts to pass it once the concerns of a few are resolved.
The bill's detractors felt compelled to wait until a meeting of House Republicans on the day of a scheduled floor vote, to air their objections — not in May, after the bill won nearly unanimous support from the House Judiciary Committee or after it was introduced with widespread bipartisan support from both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
Earlier this year, Hastert promised to proceed quickly on the legislation, calling it one of his top priorities. Or so he said.
Since 1965, Congress has renewed the act three times and added three new provisions: extending the right to vote to 18-year-olds in 1970; protecting voting rights for non-English speakers in 1975; and, most contentious of all, creating majority-minority congressional districts in 1982.
The provisions most problematic to the act's detractors are federal oversight of voting rules for nine states with documented history of voter discrimination — otherwise known as Section 5 — and the requirement of foreign-language ballots in areas with large populations of non-English speakers.
Section 5, the so-called "pre-clearance provision," requires areas covered to submit all proposed changes in voting laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.
Republican Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood, loudest of the House objectors, claimed the legislation unfairly singles out certain jurisdictions because of past discrimination. They want the act to apply to all states regardless of past history or none at all, possibly rendering the law unconstitutional. In a written statement, Westmoreland said it made no sense to keep covered states "in the penalty box for 66 years" based on 1964 election results.
But the majority of all federal objections have occurred since 1982, when Section 5 was last reauthorized, attesting to the persistence of discrimination that exists in areas covered by the act. For the past 40 years, my own home state of Louisiana has yet to produce a voting plan that garnered Justice Department approval the first time through.
It should not be surprising that both Westmoreland and Norwood hail from Georgia, where the state Legislature tried to impose a photo identification requirement upon voters without making provisions for those who couldn't afford to shell out $20 for a five-year state-issued ID. The state's pre-clearance plan received U.S. Justice Department approval in August 2005, over staff objections, only to fail in the courts.
A U.S. District Court struck it down, comparing it to an unconstitutional poll tax. U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy concluded that it would "most likely have prevented Georgia's elderly, poor and African American voters from voting."
Had the courts not intervened in Georgia, poor, elderly and African Americans would have lost their voting rights.
So, it's obvious that while major strides have been made, there's still vast room for improvement.
The Voting Rights Act's enactment was a hard-won victory of the civil rights movement. Against the backdrop of the "Bloody Sunday" violence against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Ala., President Lyndon Johnson unveiled the legislation to Congress on March 15, 1965. Nearly five months later, he signed it into law after it passed House and Senate muster with only token opposition, mainly from lawmakers in states covered by Section 5.
Back then, anti-civil rights extremists tried to use stalling tactics, misinformation and obfuscation to thwart that historic act in the face of bipartisan support. Those tactics failed then and I'm confident they'll fail again.
A small but determined group of extremists is trying to stand in the way of progress.
We urge Speaker Hastert to immediately schedule a floor vote on the Voting Rights Act reauthorization because it is clear that it enjoys the support of a substantial majority of House lawmakers and is likely to pass overwhelmingly.
Marc H. Morial is president of the National Urban League.