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Rally Planned for Re-authorizing Voting Rights Act
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Corresponent
Originally posted 8/2/2005

WASHINGTON (NNPA) –African-Americans and other people of color must fight now to not only reauthorize, but strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when key anti-discriminatory sections of it comes up for a Congressional vote in 2007, say civil rights activists.

“We must have mass education and mass inspiration so our people can know to fight back. Most people do not know the Voting Rights Act is in jeopardy, and the Voting Rights Act is up for reauthorization, and the Voting Rights Act is not being fully enforced,” Jesse Jackson Sr. says in an interview with the National Newspaper Publishers Association. “It’ll be time to go back to the streets and march to alert people and mobilize people before the fact, not after the fact. 2007 will be too late. We’ll be too far behind the eight-ball by 2007.”

Jackson is leading a national march Saturday in Atlanta to commemorate the Act’s 40th anniversary and to press for reauthorization.

Ninety-five years ago, the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, but was not fully enforced until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Congress amended and strengthened the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and extended it for 25 more years – until 2007. A key section set for expiration is the pre-clearance clause of Section 5, which requires certain states with a history of discrimination to submit any changes in voting procedures to the Department of Justice for approval before they can take effect.

Those states are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

The state, county or local governments must prove to federal authorities that voting changes do not have racially discriminatory purposes and that they will not make racial minority voters worse off than they were prior to the change. The attorney general can then prevent a change by issuing an objection, which can be challenged in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Section 5 also requires federal poll watchers to be onsite during voting.
Section 203, which requires voting precincts to eliminate any language barriers, is also up for renewal in 2007.

Though House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wyo.) said at the NAACP annual convention that he will support full authorization of the measure, Jackson says nothing can be taken for granted.

“The forces that we defeated in 1965 never stopped trying to take it back. They use gerrymandering, annexation, at-large, roll-purging, intimidation, gentrification. They never stop trying,” Jackson says.

Jackson also repeated the uncertain answer that President Bush gave to his son, U. S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), during a Congressional Black Caucus visit to the White House in January.

The congressman quoted Bush as saying he ‘didn’t know enough about’ the Voting Rights Act to say whether he will support reauthorization.

White House Spokesman Scott McClellan has since said that Bush is “Firmly committed to protecting the voting rights of all Americans… In terms of the reauthorization of that section of the Voting Rights Act, the president said that he would take a look at it.”

Voting rights experts around the country are mobilizing just in case.

Ted Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, warns of tricks leading up to reauthorization.

Any argument that the full act should be permanent or should require nationwide coverage could be fatal to anti-discriminatory protections, says Shaw.

“Both permanency and nationwide coverage are tricks…The Supreme Court has made it very clear in its jurisprudence, whether we like it or not, that any race-conscious measure has to be periodically reviewed to determine whether they're still necessary,” Shaw says. “If Section 5 becomes permanent, given the nature of Section 5, it's going to be struck down because there hasn't been a nationwide jurisdiction, which has a history of discrimination in the electoral process or low minority inclusion. The Supreme Court is going to say that's an unwarranted intrusion in those jurisdictions.”

Shaw was one of the facilitators during a two-day “Renewal Kick-off Campaign” and national conference on the Voting Rights Act, last week held by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.

Conference Executive Director Wade Henderson says he was encouraged by Sensenbrenner’s support, but that’s not enough.

“We’re also talking about restoration of the Act’s vitality to where it was when it was reauthorized 23 years ago in 1982,” Henderson says. “Our objective is to move the discussion in that direction.”

Retired Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, said citizens must also watch Democratic members of Congress who negotiated the “nuclear option,” compromising in order to confirm conservative federal judges.

“Those who wink and nod at this result may rightly be called upon to defend against the charge of being enablers and accomplices to the repealing of key sections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Jones says.

U. S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee pointed out that Election 2000, when 4 to 6 million votes were lost because of violations or faulty machines, showed how easily a vote can be nullified.

“In 1965, I saw people standing in
unmovable lines, trying day after day to pass the so-called literacy test,” he says. “Those tests are gone, but the unmovable lines reemerged in the elections of 2000 and 2004. Those challenges to equal access made it clear to the average American citizen that we have not fully escaped the chains of our dark past.”

It is because of the confusion during Election 2000 that the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law has established a commission to hold hearings around the country, gathering evidence to use for possible strengthening of the act.

Although the pre-clearance clause pertains to mostly southern states, the bi-partisan National Commission on the Voting Rights Act, is gathering evidence of on-going racial and language discrimination in voting nationwide, says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee. The committee is chaired by long-time LDF attorney, Bill Lann Lee, a former assistant attorney general for civil rights, and former U. S. Rep. Charles McCurdy Mathias, Jr. (R-Md.), who helped draft the bill.

“What people really thought was that most of the evidence was probably pertaining mostly to the South. They've mostly been amazed. They've got testimony from Massachusetts, New Jersey, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, and Wisconsin,” she says.

“We have to see what the evidence tells us,” says Arnwine. “Every time we have a hearing, people plead for Section 5 expansion. Every time we have a hearing, people plead for expansion of Section 203. Every time we have a hearing, we hear people crying for greater presence of the Justice Department to monitor their election. We've heard people say they thought the Justice Department failed to object when they should have.”

Meanwhile, a pre-march Town Hall meeting will be begin at 5 P.M. Friday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The march – which will also focus on workers rights to organize and ending the war in Iraq - is developing into a “real rainbow coalition,” Jackson says.

“The response has been tremendous. In this rally, the NAACP is coming big time. Bruce Gordon will give his first major speech. The Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Counsel of La Raza, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Latino Caucus, and the AFL-CIO have all committed to participate,” Jackson says. A variety of big-name entertainers, including Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, and Harry Belafonte, have also committed to participate, he says.

“After that, we will raise it to the next level - to Congress,” Jackson says. “We’re putting it on the front burner. We’re telling the marchers to go back to their states and focus on the mandate: Increasing voter registration for the 2006 campaigns and putting pressure on senators to support voting rights reauthorization and voter enforcement. We’re reviving street activism en masse.”


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