Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Senate yesterday passed a 25-year extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the same form that the House passed a week ago, eliminating the need for a conference, after President Bush’s call to get the bill to his desk before the summer recess.

“I said that I looked forward to the Senate promptly passing the House bill without amendment. Today, the Senate acted and voted to reauthorize this historic legislation,” President Bush said after the act was passed 98-0. “I will be pleased to sign the Voting Rights Act into law, and I will continue to work with Congress to ensure that our country lives up to our guiding principle that all men and women are created equal.”

There were few speeches in opposition to the bill, although several Southern senators expressed concern about the cost to taxpayers of multilingual balloting and complained that their states are still being punished for long-ago voter discrimination.

States outside the South are largely exempted from the law’s most stringent requirements, which apply to areas where black voters were often disenfranchised before 1965.

“Some of the data in the act is based on 1968, 1972 turnout models, and the act does not reflect some of the progress, particularly in my region of the country; and I think it should have, but it doesn’t, so we will just move on,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, chastised his colleagues for refusing to stand up for Southern states and pointed out the South’s successful record of registering black voters and electing black politicians.

“The voter-registration rates among blacks in the covered jurisdictions is higher than in the uncovered jurisdictions,” he said and added statistical data, “During the time of the act’s passage, voter-registration rates for African Americans was at about 29 percent; now nationally it is at about 62.2 percent for noncovered jurisdictions and 68.8 percent for the covered jurisdictions.”

Southern Republican senators were all but forced to vote for the bill despite their objections and without any amendments, after Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, allowed debate but made it clear with the support of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, that he would not support amendments to the version sent to them by the House.

“Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis laid the groundwork for the original Voting Rights Act through the civil rights movement, and this extension will continue the progress we’ve made toward ending discrimination at the polls,” Mr. Frist said.

Last week, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, helped defeat four tough amendments from fellow House Republicans, before the bill was passed 390-33.

The expiring provisions extended yesterday will be in effect until 2031. The language of the law will remain identical to what was passed in 1982, the last reauthorization, with the only differences being the recorded data on voter registration and participation and trends on new and old violations.

Most important to the bill were Sections 3, 4, 5 and 203.

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 that any state or jurisdiction that has required passing superfluous tests or taxes to vote, and any state or county where less than 50 percent of the electorate was registered or voted in the previous presidential election will be covered under Section 5. That section 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.

Black leaders advocated reauthorization as the only effective means of preventing a return to the patterns of discrimination under the Jim Crow laws struck down during the civil rights era.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, who was beaten unconscious during the historic Alabama voting rights march that helped prompt passage of the 1965 law, recalled violence suffered by the marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

“Because of what happened on Aug. 6, 1965, we have had in America what I like to call a nonviolent revolution of ideas and values; it has made our nation better,” Mr. Lewis said, referring to the date the original legislation was signed.

Hispanics and Asian activists, meanwhile, focused on Section 203 that requires any jurisdiction to print ballots and other election materials in the native language of foreign nationals who have limited English proficiency when they meet or exceed 10,000 voters or where they represent 7.5 percent of the electorate.

“My mother who is an immigrant speaks perfect English, but she still prefers at times to read election materials particularly state and local ballot initiatives in Spanish, because it is easier for her to understand the nuances in her own language,” said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat and member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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