House Delays Renewal of Voting Rights Act
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GWEN IFILL: Politically speaking, this was supposed to be a slam dunk. Everyone understood that the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 1965 and renewed in 1982, was set to expire next year.
Democrats and Republicans, in the House and the Senate, agreed early on that another extension would be easily passed before the House left town for their Fourth of July recess.
SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), Senate Majority Leader: Today, we stand together to make sure the Voting Rights Act will not expire.
GWEN IFILL: Even President Bush was on board.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I want this Voting Rights Act extended. And so we’re working with members of the United States Congress to see if we can’t get it done.
GWEN IFILL: But a scheduled vote was suddenly yanked from the calendar just last week, after a group of Republican lawmakers revolted. Ignoring their House leaders, they argued that sections of the law are outmoded, unfair and unnecessary.
John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who led the marchers that got the law enacted 41 years ago, could not disagree more.
REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), Georgia: We have made a lot of progress, but we cannot go back.
Bilingual ballots worry politicians
GWEN IFILL: Iowa Republican Steve King was the first lawmaker to get off the train, casting the House Judiciary Committee's lone "no" vote against the renewal earlier this year. Among his concerns: that, in many states, the law requires ballots to be printed in languages other than English.
REP. STEVE KING (R), Iowa: If people come to America, naturalized as citizens, they've already certified that they're proficient in English and should be able to vote an English ballot.
GWEN IFILL: When the law was originally signed in 1965, the problems it was intended to fix were clear.
SELMA OFFICIAL: Do you have any business in the courthouse?
AFRICAN-AMERICAN VOTER: The only business we have was to come by to the Board of Registrars to register...
SELMA OFFICIAL: The Board of Registrars in not in session this afternoon, as you were informed beforehand. You came down to make a mockery out of this courthouse, and we're not going to have it.
Bipartisan agreement derailed
GWEN IFILL: Poll taxes and literacy tests were used routinely in many southern states to prevent African-Americans from voting. In Selma, Alabama, voter registration was limited to two days a month.
Among other things, the law now requires that states and counties with a history of discrimination, most of them in the South, get federal permission before voting laws are changed.
By 1975, an additional protection was added: requiring language assistance, including translated ballots, in 466 jurisdictions, covering 31 states. None of this stirred significant controversy until last week, when the bipartisan agreement to renew the law this year was suddenly derailed.
Lewis says he was stunned.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: It is unreal. It is unbelievable that we had everybody, everybody on board, on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Congress, the Democrats, the Republicans, House members, Senate members, the entire leadership.
We walked down the steps. We shook hands. We had a deal that we were all going to bring up this bill and pass it.
GWEN IFILL: But Iowa's King, who has been joined by at least 80 other dissenters, argues that the law should be amended because many of the 1960s' protections are no longer needed.
REP. STEVE KING: I don't see racism where I travel, not in anywhere near the kind of definition we used to have. There will always be an element of it somewhere, but it also causes friction when you label people as racist who have reached out and done a good job to provide opportunities for people.
The Voting Rights Act and racism
GWEN IFILL: And you think the Voting Rights Act, as it now exists, or as it would exist in its reauthorization, labels people as racists?
REP. STEVE KING: I think it does. It's hard to make the argument that there's discrimination that exists yet today, especially on the officeholders of African-Americans, they're in greater numbers than their representation proportionally in the population. It's hard to make the argument that it still exists as a -- I'll say a definable element in the electoral process within those districts.
GWEN IFILL: John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus vigorously disagree. As evidence, they note that the Justice Department has filed 1,000 civil rights challenges under the law since it was last reauthorized in 1982.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: There's wholesale violation of the -- not just the letter, but the spirit of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in all of the covered states. Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, almost every single state could be singled out and said, "You've been in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
GWEN IFILL: To catch these violations, Lewis says, the federal government needs to be able to pre-clear proposed election law changes that might violate voters' rights.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Pre-clearance is important. It is the life blood of the Voting Rights Act, without a doubt.
But at the same time, you cannot deny a whole segment of the population of the right to participate, equal access to the ballots, simply because of the language. So we need them both. It's not either/or. We have not yet created a truly interracial democracy in the American South. We still have a distance to go.
Future Act negotiation
GWEN IFILL: House leaders are negotiating behind the scenes to gather the Republican majority they insist on.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House Majority Leader: We're continuing to work with these members to help educate them about what the law is and what it is not, what it means and what it doesn't mean, in order to try to find a way to move the Voting Rights Act reauthorization.
GWEN IFILL: The education and negotiation process faces a real-life political test soon. If the bill does not pass this year, Democrats have already vowed to use that against the House leadership when the right to vote is exercised at the polls.