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A Push to Extend Voting Rights Act

House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. said he wants extensions to the Voting Rights Act passed during this Congress.
House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. said he wants extensions to the Voting Rights Act passed during this Congress. (By Todd Ponath -- Waukesha Freeman Via Associated Press)

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By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) plans to announce today at the NAACP's annual convention that he will work to extend portions of the Voting Rights Act that are scheduled to expire in 2007, congressional aides said yesterday.

Civil rights leaders recently reminded President Bush about the expiring passages and have been working to get congressional leaders' attention for the issue. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has made outreach to minorities and support for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act a hallmark of his chairmanship.

Some blacks have continued to express resentment toward Republicans after problems they said they encountered in voting in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Bush improved his performance among black voters from about 9 percent in his first election to at least 11 percent last November, according to exit polls.

Sensenbrenner, speaking to a plenary session at the NAACP's 96th annual convention in Milwaukee, said he will work to make sure the extensions are passed during the current two-year Congress.

"While we have made progress and curtailed injustices thanks to the Voting Rights Act, our work is not yet complete," Sensenbrenner said in a prepared text. "We cannot let discriminatory practices of the past resurface to threaten future gains. The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist -- and exist in its current form."

Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington office, said that it was "very good" to hear about Sensenbrenner's remarks and that he is anxious to work with him. Shelton said the act should be extended in its current form "at the very least," but perhaps should be expanded.

"There also needs to be a commitment to see to it that as we reauthorize, we actually strengthen it so that all Americans have the right to register, to cast an unfettered vote and to have that vote counted," Shelton said.

Among the provisions scheduled to expire at the end of 2007 is one that requires certain states and precincts -- most of them in the South, including all of Virginia -- to get the Justice Department to give "pre-clearance" to changes in voting time, place or manner. The act's supporters call that one of its most crucial enforcement components.

Also set to expire is a section, added after the act's passage, requiring localities that have heavy populations of non-English speakers to provide ballots and instructions in other languages.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a crucial tool in reducing racially discriminatory voting practices in southern states that had relied on literacy tests and other methods to deter blacks from registering to vote. President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the legislation at a time of international outrage over brutality toward civil rights protesters in Selma, Ala., and now it is considered by scholars to be the most successful civil rights act ever passed by Congress.

The expiring provisions inspired an Internet rumor that blacks would lose the right to vote in 2007, and the false information became so widespread that the Justice Department issued a "clarification" saying that the basic prohibition against discrimination in voting is contained in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution and "does not expire at all; it is permanent."

Sensenbrenner noted that in his office, he displays a pen President Ronald Reagan gave him in 1982 when he signed a bill extending the act for 25 years, after Sensenbrenner helped shepherd the legislation through the House. "In the 1960s, all major civil rights legislation was passed with strong bipartisan support," the chairman said. "Lately, this has not been the case as some have tried to use the issue of civil rights to obtain a partisan advantage. This is both wrong and shortsighted."

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) included reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act among his immediate priorities when he outlined his upcoming agenda on the House floor before the Fourth of July district work period.

Todd F. Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, called the act "one of the most successful and effective pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century," but added that "most of its beneficial effects occurred in the first five years."

"It continues to have some continuing benefits but some of the provisions are kind of quaint and anachronistic and possibly have outlived their usefulness," Gaziano said. He said the pre-clearance provision is the one that should receive the most scrutiny and debate. He said it should be updated or eliminated. If it is continued, he said, it should be "universalized" and apply throughout the country.

The Baltimore-based NAACP, which calls itself the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, claims a membership of more than 500,000 and said more than 8,000 people are expected at the seven-day convention, which opened yesterday.


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