House Extends Outdated Voting Rights Act Provisions
The House yesterday voted to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years, despite objections from Southern Members.
The House yesterday easily approved an extension of key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act, after GOP leaders quelled a rebellion within the party’s Southern ranks that threatened to become a political embarrassment. Before the 390 to 33 vote to extend the measure for a quarter-century, the House defeated four amendments that would have diluted two expiring provisions and possibly derailed final passage before the November congressional elections. With the House hurdle now cleared, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he hoped to bring the extension to the Senate floor before the August reces
The Voting Rights Act is a cornerstone of the civil rights era and was adopted in 1965 to stop the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, particularly in the South, through barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Much of the legislation, including a section that bans racial discrimination at the ballot box, is permanent law. But several key provisions are temporary. One requires certain states and jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to gain federal approval for voting-law changes. Another imposes a language-assistance requirement on jurisdictions with a high percentage of voters whose native language is not English.
It is those two provisions that drew the ire of some Republican lawmakers, mainly from the South. Some of these Republicans had objected to approving the provisions and, in recent weeks, had blocked the bill from going to the floor. To move it forward, GOP leaders allowed the four amendments to be considered. Most of the disgruntled Republicans swallowed their complaints and voted for final passage. One of the 33 holdouts was Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). “Some politicians in Washington wouldn’t dare vote against this bill because they’d be lambasted by the media and liberal interest groups,” McHenry said. “I will not go along with bad public policy in the name of political correctness. . . . This bill is a 1960s solution for a 21st-century world.”
Two of the amendments the dissenting Republicans brought forward addressed the required approval of changes in states’ voting laws. “It’s true that when the Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965, Georgia needed federal intervention to correct decades of discrimination,” said freshman Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.), whose amendment to ease the pre-clearance requirement failed 302 to 118, although a majority of Republicans backed it. Westmoreland noted that voter registration and turnout in Georgia are higher today among black voters than among white voters. One-third of officials elected statewide are black, including the attorney general and the chief justice, and black representation in the state legislature is in proportion to Georgia’s black population. “Georgia’s record on voter equality can stand up against any other state in the union,” he said.
McHenry and Westmoreland are quite right. Demagogery to the contrary, voting rights for racial minorities are simply no longer in controversy. The two provisions being contested, however, are.
I remain convinced that applying different legal standards to a handful of states is blatantly unconstitutional in addition to being unnecessary. Indeed, I would argue that the preclearance requirement, which requires the federal judiciary to approve something that the Constitution makes a plenary power of state legislatures, is also unconstitutional. But politicians are too afraid of being labeled “racist” to concern themselves about such trifles.