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Handful of the GOP Members of Congress Delay Voting Rights Renewal
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 7/6/2006

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Alabama, the civil rights hotbed where the famous Selma to Montgomery marches led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has a Congressional delegation sharply divided over renewing of key parts of the landmark legislation.

“It’s distressing. There are still some [members] from the South who have found various reasons, various excuses to oppose reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. I think it should be a huge embarrassment for the Republican Party,” says U. S. Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), whose 7th District incorporates Selma, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, key battlegrounds in the civil rights struggle.

Davis predicts the legislation will be extended before it is set to expire next year.

“It will pass, but what’s distressing about this is that in 2006, 41 years after our country got a Voting Rights Act, so many members of Congress are trying to weaken or are trying to make it nearly impossible to administer. That’s something that deeply concerns me,” Davis said.

As Davis and Congressman Bud Cramer (D-5th), his only Democratic colleague in the state, remain staunchly behind renewing the Act, the stances of Alabama’s Republican representatives range from staunch support to staunch opposition to the bill, titled the “Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006'', H.R. 9.

Robert Aderholt (R-4th) and Mike Rogers (R-3rd), a co-sponsor of the bill, were both a part of a contingency that stopped the bill from going to the floor on June 22 by protesting that it was moving too fast.

They argue against Section 5, which requires 16 states with documented histories of racial voter discrimination to pre-clear new voting changes through the Justice Department.

They contend all states should be covered by section 5. While that might appear broader, critics say such legislation would likely be nullified because states would need to show a history of past discrimination before being covered under anti-bias laws.

Spencer Bachus (R-6th) remains in support of the bill as it is. Terry Everett (R-2nd) says he hasn’t decided how he will vote. Rep. Jo Bonner, (R-1st), has expressed reservations about Section 203 of the Act, which requires multilingual ballots in some areas.

The Senate is also moving slowly on the bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has said the Senate won’t hold hearings on the act until late this month.

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is among those who claim the law unfairly targets the South and should be expanded nationally. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama says he hasn’t focused on the bill enough to make a decision.

Whether they are for or against reauthorization, the bloody fight for the first passage of the Act will remind lawmakers of its importance.

March 7, 1965, which would later become known as ''Bloody Sunday'' was the first leg of a 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march along U.S. 80 en route to the Alabama state capital, organized to help win passage of a national voting rights law. But Alabama state troopers brutally beat the marchers, including Congressman John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The marchers were forced to retreat that day, but eventually, more than 3,000 protesters marched across the bridge en route to Montgomery.

Moved by the televised violence against African-Americans and their supporters, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that summer. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965.

Speaking of the list of amendments in attempt to nullify Section 5, Lewis said in a statement, “We have made those mistakes before in this country, especially as it relates to matters of race, and I hope this nation and this Congress will not choose to go down that dark road again. I hope we have evolved enough at this juncture to choose a better way, a way that is not regressive, but a way that will help us continue our preparations as a nation and as a people to lay down the burden of race in America.”

Only two months ago, the reauthorization appeared to be a done deal. On May 10, the House Judiciary Committee voted 33-1 to send the bill to the floor for a full House vote.

Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and the ranking member, John Conyers (D-Mich.), issued joint statements praising the Act as passed out of committee. The House and Senate leadership and President Bush also voice support for passage of the measure.

But, two weeks ago, just as the bill was about to go to the House floor for a vote, the unexpected happened.

Approximately 30 Southern members of the House, reportedly led by members from Georgia and Texas, protested, saying they wanted more time to debate and offer amendments. Members from other Southern states joined in.

The floor vote was thwarted twice as members expressed their opposition, despite the fact that House Leader Dennis Hastert (R-Ill) has remained firm in his support of the reauthorization bill.

Davis, of Alabama says he believes as many as 130 members of the 435-member House will vote against the reauthorization.

“Obviously we have made extraordinary progress in the last 42 years, and we owe that progress to two things, number one to changing hearts and changing attitudes, number two to strong, effective legal structures. Both have been necessary,” he says.

“The reality is that laws help protect our country from our own worst attitudes. And the Voting Rights Act works. It has been a spectacular success. And the last time I checked, when something is working you don’t go out and break it.”

The House vote on renewal is expected next week. Just before Congress broke for July 4th recess, it rejected an attempt to eliminate Section 203. The amendment, offered by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), was defeated 167-254.
David Bositis, senior researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, supports a change in Section 5, but not in the way supported by rebelling Southerners.

“The law needs to be strengthened,” he says. “There are various systematic efforts to keep Black voters from voting.”

Bositis cited a new Georgia law that will require identification before voting. It will be in effect during the July 18 primary unless a court issues an injunction. Bositis says the Justice Department approval of the new Georgia voter I. D. underscore the need to stricter enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Pre-clearance Clause is toothless because the Bush justice department has been using the Pre-clearance clause to harm,” he says.

“All civil rights groups in Georgia were opposed to that law. What’s going to be effective is you have to have photo I.D. to vote. Whose vote is it going to suppress? It’s going to suppress the Black vote. Republicans, especially Southern Republicans, don’t want Black voters to vote.”

Civil rights activists remember what that was like.

There were only 300 Black elected officials in 1965 when the Act was passed, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. By 1970, the number jumped to 1,469 and is now at 9,500. Even so, that’s still approximately 2 percent of all elected officials in the U. S.

Congress first amended and strengthened the Voting Rights Act in 1982, when it was first set to expire, and then extended it for 25 years – until 2007. Sections 5 and 203 are set to expire next year. If the House and Senate approves the reauthorization it would be for 25 more years.

“Nothing is more important than preserving the expiring provisions,” says Barbara Arnwine, execuive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

“We all know that the legislative process is slow and the 109th Congress has already held more than a dozen hearings and amassed voluminous evidence supporting renewal of the Voting Rights Act….We’ve already seen a legislative process that is fraught with hurdles and there’s active opposition to this reauthorization. And it is critical, therefore, that we act as soon as possible.”

Ted Shaw, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says the Republican uprising did not surprise him.

“The history of discrimination has included repeated attempts to either suppress or take away by disenfranchisement the right to vote for members of racial minority groups,” he recalls.

“Without Section 5, minorities would lose their primary vehicle for redressing any discrimination to which they are subjected at the ballot box.

And if section 5 and the other provisions that expire in 2007 are not reauthorized, we would see the clocks roll back by decades of progress. And our nation’s unfortunate history of discrimination in polling places might be resurrected.”

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