House Republicans say they will draft a 25-year reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before 2007, starting debate on the issue this year, two years before three sections of the act are scheduled to expire.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said politics and partisanship have nothing to do with his announcement for reauthorization, nor is it a move to have legislation ready in time to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6.
“The fear is that if Congress does not begin now or is too slow in organizing around [the voting rights act], the result would be the expiration of the act in 2007 without a reauthorization in place,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.
The act put legislative muscle behind the 15th Amendment of the Constitution to provide equal protection on voting rights.
Mr. Sensenbrenner said hearings likely will begin in the fall and continue into the second session.
Some have speculated that Congress will reauthorize only Section 5 of the act. Section 5 requires that the specific states and counties covered under the act — mostly in the South — must have their voting laws, procedures and redistricting cleared by the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Mr. Sensenbrenner said the sections to be reauthorized “is an open question,” and will be determined by the outcome of extensive hearings and research.
He noted that the Voting Rights Act has been extended three times, in 1968, 1972 and 1982. States covered by Section 5 challenged the constitutionality of the act each time, but the Supreme Court has maintained that the federal government must protect the franchise for voters against state infringements.
“If Congress extends Section 5 alone, the pre-clearance clause of the Voting Rights Act, it will certainly be challenged by one of the covered jurisdictions on the basis of states’ rights,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.
“But Section 5 is meaningless without Sections 3 and 4,” said Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Section 3 grants federal courts the power to assign examiners from the U.S. Civil Service Commission to oversee the voting practices of a covered jurisdiction for a period of time determined by the attorney general.
Section 4 establishes the criteria in cases where a state or jurisdiction falls under the auspices of the act — including any states that have required tests or taxes in order to vote, and any state or county where less than 50 percent of the electorate was registered or voted in the previous presidential election.
Most states and jurisdictions that were covered under the 1964 criteria — Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, plus specified counties in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and North Carolina — are still covered.
In 1982, Congress amended Section 4 to provide how jurisdictions could escape coverage under the act.