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Voting Rights Act Renewal and Dems's Future

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, and the kickoff of a new movement to secure the renewal of key provisions of this historic legislation. This is a concern of significance for the Democratic Party, which is weakened by the suppression of minority votes. Writing in today's New York Times ("Keeping the Polls Open"), U.S. Rep. John Lewis, one of the heroes of the Voting Rights struggle, underscores the critical importance of renewing the law:

Several sections of the act are set to expire in 2007, however. One of the most important is Section 5, which requires that states and localities with a history of voting discrimination submit any changes in their voting systems for review, called "preclearance," by the Justice Department or a federal court. If those changes are found to violate the act, they must be reformulated.

There are some in Congress who suggest that Section 5 is now irrelevant, a relic of an unjust past. Yet there is plenty of convincing recent evidence of insidious attempts to deny some Americans equal access to the voting booth.

For example, the Georgia Legislature passed a law this spring requiring voters to present a government-issued photo identification before voting. This is a significant departure from the state's current law, which allows 17 other forms of identification, including birth certificates and bank statements. This change would have a discriminatory effect on African-Americans, who are far less likely than whites to have a driver's license. To make matters worse, there are only 53 motor-vehicle offices to serve the state's 159 counties. For now, this law cannot take effect without federal approval, but should Section 5 lapse, Georgia voters would lose an important line of defense.

But, as Rep. Lewis points out, the Voting Rights Act protects other minorities outside the South from disenfranchisement schemes:

Some states have blatantly disregarded the law. In 1975 Congress added two counties in South Dakota with long histories of discrimination against Americans Indians to the list of those requiring preclearance of voting laws. Nonetheless, state officials decided not to recognize the federal mandate; over the next two decades, they passed 800 regulations and statutes without submitting them for federal review. As recently as 2002, officials in Buffalo County packed nearly all the county's American Indian majority into a single voting district to ensure that they could control only one seat on the three-member county commission. Relief came in lawsuits filed under the act. As part of a settlement, Buffalo County was forced to admit its rules were discriminatory and to allow federal oversight of future plans.

The Voting Rights Act has also aided "language minorities" in New York City. As a result of lawsuits brought by Puerto Ricans in the 1970's arguing that New York's English-only ballots discriminated against Spanish-speaking voters, three counties - New York, Bronx and Kings - are now covered under Section 5's federal review regulations.

Another section of the act, the "language assistance" provision, is also set to expire in 2007. Litigation based on the provision led to mandated Chinese-language ballots in New York, helping more than 100,000 Asian-Americans not fluent in English to vote. In 2001, John Liu was elected to the City Council, becoming the first Asian-American elected to a major legislative position in the city with the nation's largest Asian-American population.

These are just a few of the hundreds of contemporary challenges to the right to vote that need our attention (without even mentioning recent judicial decisions intended to weaken the power of the Voting Rights Act). Unless we re-authorize and strengthen every vital provision of the act, we risk the advances we have achieved.

The WaPo wrap-up on the Voting Rights Act anniversary adds:

...efforts to dilute the minority vote by redrawing districts in South Carolina and Texas are a real-life example of why the pre-clearance of rules is still needed. Also, they say, black voters complained of being wrongly identified as felons and crossed off the voting rolls in the 2000 presidential election.

As a matter of simple justice, renewal of these provisions of the Voting Rights Act are needed to insure continued protection of the rights of minority voters. And because people of color more often vote Democratic, it should be a special priority for Dems.