House Extends Outdated Voting Rights Act Provisions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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. floyd says:

    america was a noble experiment, too bad it required an informed people with principles.

  2. Tano says:

    Its not that Congresspeople are afraid of being CALLED racists, it is that they sincerely do not wish to ACT like racists. Your claim that the provisions are unconstitutional is not only patently false, but indicates that you would wish that they had never been allowed to come into force in the first place. Which would have meant, of course, a continuation of the disenfranchisement of the black population. Which makes you either a racist, or a racism-enabler.

    The federal government has the power to insure that all the people are granted equal protection under the law. This issue was decided long ago, and at great cost. It was perhaps our nations finest moment, and we, the overwhelming majority of the people, aint gonna go back.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Tano: Read the article before leaving moronic comments.

    The controversy is over the provisions that single out nine states for special treatment under the law, not whether minorities should have equal voting rights.

    There’s no question that the Voting Rights Act itself is Constitutional. Indeed, it’s Constitutionally unnecessary because the 15th Amendment (and arguably, the 14th) gives blacks voting rights. It’s the unequal application of the law that’s a problem.

  4. I agree with you James. Changing the law to require all states to have pre-approval or changing the law to allow for post facto review in all states would have made more sense.

  5. Tano says:

    The “special treatment” of the nine states is a function of their being the perpetrators of the injustice that the law seeks to reverse. Your statements are as absurd as saying that the parole system is unfair becasue it only applies to former criminals.

    And to claim that the law is “unnecessary” because of the relevant amendments is uterrly mindless. Constitutional provisions are not enforcable laws. They are the framework in which laws are written. One does not suffer legal penalty for violating a constitutional amendment, one suffers legal penalty for violating a law that is consistent with, or that gives legal definition to Constitutional provisions. Without an enabling law that is enforced, Constitutional provisions are simply words on paper.

  6. Tano says:

    As a further thought on my post above, the very fact that the Voting Rights Act needed to be passed 100 years after the 14th and 15th Amendments were enacted is proof enough that the law was not “unnecessary”.

    Your original post made me wonder where exactly you were coming from on this subject. Your comment is beginning to remove some doubts.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Tano: By “unnecessary” in this case, I just meant redundant. It was made necessary by the Supreme Court, in Plessy and other cases, ignoring the plain meaning of the 14th and 15th Amendments and striking down such things as the Civil Rights Act of 1875, rather clearly allowed by the enforcement clause of the 14th.

    We can pass laws singling out former criminals for sanction because the Constitution permits that pursuant to due process. In this case, though, the Constitution rather clearly gives plenary power to state legislatures to handle reapportionment/redistricting matters and separately requires that laws passed by Congress be operative equally to all states. These two provisions of the VRA violate those principles.

  8. Tano says:

    The Constitution gives to the states the power to reapportion, but it also demands equal protection of the laws. It is not uncommon for situations to arise in which two Constitutional principles are engaged and where each one might indicate a different outcome. The VRA provisions resolve these contradictions by leaving the reapportionment powers in the hands of the state, but demanding oversight to insure that the equal protection requirements are met. Its the ideal solution. It would have been equally applied to any and all states that had a similar 100 year history of willful, “legal” disenfranchisement of their black population.

    I do not follow your argument about necessity and redundancy. Clearly, blacks were disenfranchised in the southern states before the VRA. The law fixed that. Without the law, it would not have been fixed. The law was neither unnecessary nor redundant.

  9. Tano, by your logic, Johnson blew up the bay of Tonkin incident to justify the US expansion in Vietnam so any democratic president should be subject to having his decisions reviewed before he can act on them in regards to his constitutional duties as commander and chief.

    Some of the worst race riots occurred in Boston, so the issue isn’t just a southern one. Please justify with examples from today that show the nine states in question are having problems that are not being experienced in any of the other states. Saying everyone should have prior review or no one should have prior review is not ignoring the past, but dealing with the reality of today. The democrats group identification thinking is comfortable with an immutable world where the past impacts present groups despite all other evidence. That is just wrong.

  10. Those of you who support the “as-is” renewal of the “temporary” measures originally intended to expire in 1970, please answer me a question.

    The “benchmark” for determining whether or not a state is subject to the special provisions is the turnout of voters in the 1964 presidential election. Areas with below a 50% turnout in 1964 are presumed to be discriminating.

    One of the proposed changes — considered to be an act of desecration of the VRA by opponents — would have dropped 1964 as a benchmark and instead have required preclearance for areas in which there was less than a 50% turnout during any one of the three most recent elections. This would have therefore attacked current voting issues rather than an election now four decades in the past (which will be nearly 7 decades in the past at the time these provisions are set to expire). Why the problem with using current data rather than historical data?