Congress will wrap up its review of the 1965 Voting Rights Act next week and intends to reauthorize provisions due to expire next year, said the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Next week we will try to put forth legislation that will change slightly some of the provisions [Sections 3, 5 and 203] to deal with the decisions the Supreme Court has made that chop the legs out from under the act,” said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat.
Mr. Watt said court rulings in several cases during the past 24 years have weakened the act. He thinks Congress should create a narrower standard for the sections dealing with preclearance, federal monitors and mandates for bilingual ballots, literature, and poll workers.
Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Constitution subcommittee, told The Washington Times last month that it was “more likely than not” that a reauthorization measure would pass the House in the next session.
In a subcommittee hearing this week, legal specialists explained that the Supreme Court’s “retrogression standard” decision in Georgia v. Ashcroft has weakened the act. They urged members to strengthen the sections under attack by opponents — primarily from states covered under the Section 5 preclearance statute.
Theodore M. Shaw, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the standard set in the 2003 case has led to the approval of redistricting plans that previously would have been rejected by both the Justice Department and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
“It provides no meaningful standards for defining an acceptable level of influence [for minority voters] that should properly be taken into account in the preclearance decision,” Mr. Shaw said.
The case, brought by the former Attorney General John Ashcroft, sought to preclear a plan to redraw three Georgia Senate districts seated by blacks that reduced the black voter majority from “60.6 percent, 55.4 percent and 62.5 percent” to about 50 percent in each district.
The federal appellate court rejected the plan in 1997, as did the Justice Department, only to be overturned by the Supreme Court in 2000.
Mr. Shaw said the standard should be altered to counteract that decision and make clear the intent of Congress to secure minority political gains, shield against voter dilution and keep minority voter interests from falling under the auspices of a single office holder.
Georgia’s most recent election change requiring a state-issued photo identification to vote was halted after its introduction in September, with the court ruling that the provision amounted to a poll tax and could infringe upon minority-voter participation of both blacks and hispanics.