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Panel OKs extension of voting act

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a 25-year reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act for a floor vote, which is expected in the middle of next week.

The bill passed the committee on a 33-1 vote, but some legislators want more lenient standards for covered jurisdictions and elimination of provisions requiring that election ballots be printed in languages other than English.

"If we proceed with the 25 years, we will have had bilingual ballots for 56 years, the better part of a century, and we will have institutionalized bilingual ballots and many of these other measures," said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.

He offered two amendments. One would strike sections of the law requiring jurisdictions to provide ballots and election materials in other languages if either 7,500 voters or 10 percent of the local electorate are more fluent in that language than English. That measure was defeated on a 26-9 vote.

The other measure to extend the language provisions for six years instead of 25 also was rejected.

Mr. King was the only member of the committee to vote against a floor vote.

A fight may loom next week on those measures and one introduced by Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, who tried to alter the way jurisdictions could circumvent Section 5, which mandates that any changes to voting practices and redistricting plans be cleared first by the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Mr. Lungren said his alternative would remove certain California counties that are covered under Section 5 because of the presence of large military installations with large numbers of residents who vote absentee.

"I understand the importance of this bill, but this is a 25-year extension, and I don't think that this is fair to ask them to wait for another 25 years," said Mr. Lungren, responding to requests from members to withdraw the measure, which he later did.

Some members, particularly Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, were intrigued. He said the proposal "does not appear to be malicious," but added that he would need to understand why the covered counties could not opt out under the current provisions.

The Voting Rights Act provides remedies for jurisdictions to bypass the pre-clearance if they can show that they have been in complete compliance, have had no new voting measures denied and have not been the subject of any voting rights lawsuits for 10 years.

"There is no record developed and none seen in our hearings on the voting patterns and practices of military installations, which can be easily manipulated," said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.