July 7, 2006

Commentary:

Congress wrong to stall on renewing Voting Rights Act

By Debo Adegbile

The House of Representatives recently missed an opportunity to reassert Congress’s commitment to political equality.

On June 21, a small group of Republican members of the House blocked a vote on renewing the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The landmark provisions guard against voting discrimination in areas where Congress has consistently found a pattern and potential of serious voting violations. The provisions also provide for language assistance for those citizens who would otherwise face obstacles without it.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act presented the nation with a choice between hypocrisy and democracy. The choice is no different today.

The Voting Rights Act has brought about many positive changes. Minority voters have far greater access to the polls today, and many legislative bodies at all levels of government are more representative.

But a faction of House Republicans, led by freshman Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, announced opposition to the renewal of the provisions months ago, and have now set their plan in action.

First, they argue that the timing isn’t right. Because the provisions now in effect do not expire until 2007, Westmoreland and his supporters claim they want to debate the renewal more thoroughly.

But the truth is that the process has been anything but rushed. A House committee held 12 hearings over more than eight months. Westmoreland was given special permission to participate in the hearings though he does not sit on the relevant committee. The House record now stands at more than 12,000 pages that describe both the progress made and the substantial continuing voting discrimination since the last renewal in 1982.

Second, Westmoreland and his supporters claim to have constitutional concerns. But they are well aware that, while constitutional challenges have always followed renewals of the Voting Rights Act, and likely will again, the Supreme Court has always upheld the act — most recently in 1999.

President Bush, both parties’ leadership and a majority of the rank and file support a renewal of the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act. They recognize this as a bipartisan issue that needs to move forward.

A small group of vocal opponents should not be allowed to hold up democracy.

Debo P. Adegbile is associate director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. Source URL: http://progressive.org/media_mpadegbile062806

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