A cadre of extreme ideological conservatives blocked consideration of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) reauthorization in the House of Representatives this week, delaying indefinitely this critical measure. VRA is generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress, and its renewal enjoys broad bipartisan support. The House Judiciary Committee approved the "Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006" (H.R. 9) by an overwhelming vote of 33-1 last month. The bill would extend VRA to protect and preserve the voting rights of all Americans.
However, this rogue group of House conservatives is determined to weaken voting rights protections by gutting VRA's most important provisions, including the preclearance rules under Section 5 and the language requirements under Section 203.
The Judiciary Committee's compromise bill extends Section 5, which requires certain covered jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to seek preclearance of election law changes from the Justice Department. This provision ensures that state officials cannot make changes that would disenfranchise minority populations from exercising their constitutionally protected right to vote. In the wake of recent Supreme Court interpretations that opened loopholes in the law, the compromise strengthens Section 5, restoring the original meaning of the phrase "to protect the ability of such [minority] citizens to elect their preferred candidates of choice."
The compromise would extend the language assistance provisions in Section 203, requiring counties with more than five percent or 10,000 language-minority citizens to provide voting assistance in a language other than English. It would also extend Sections 6-9, which empower the Department of Justice to dispatch federal observers to monitor the polls.
The bipartisan House Judiciary Committee bill protects the rights of minority voters and ensures that all citizens can exercise their right to vote. Conservatives, however, have demanded that the House leadership weaken the VRA by rewriting the rules that govern which states require preclearance. The proposed changes would eviscerate the most effective provisions of the VRA and make the act more vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.
At a time when voting rights are already under siege by the administration's political appointees at the Justice Department, now is the time to strengthen, not weaken, our civil rights laws.
To read more about the reauthorization of the Voting Right Act, see also:
To read more about the Bush administration's unprecedented assault on voting rights, see the following resources (available on the Center for American Progress Action Fund):