The Voting Rights Act has long been regarded as one of the nation's most successful civil rights laws, ending decades of discrimination that disenfranchised millions of black voters in the Deep South. But Congress is now considering whether to extend certain provisions of the act, which would otherwise lapse in 2007. One provision, usually referred to as Section 5 of the act, requires specific jurisdictions to submit to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance any proposed changes in voting procedures, such as moving polling places or redrawing district boundaries. Another provision, known as Section 203 or the Bilingual Election Requirements, forces hundreds of jurisdictions across the country to print ballots in languages other than English -- an expensive and divisive practice. Neither of these sections of the act should be reauthorized, but Congress may find it difficult to do the right thing.
Section 5 was included in the original Voting Rights Act in 1965 because many Southern states consistently changed their voting laws and procedures to keep blacks from voting. In 1965, for example, only about 6 percent of blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote, having been subjected to literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and even death threats to prevent them from voting. Yet only two years after Congress passed the act, some 60 percent of eligible black voters were registered.
Now, 40 years later, many of the very jurisdictions subject to the onerous provisions of Section 5 are represented by black elected officials who clearly have no reason to try to change voting laws in order to discriminate against their fellow black citizens. It makes no sense to require jurisdictions that have long abandoned racial discrimination in voting to seek permission from Washington each time they want to move a polling place, extend voting hours or adopt more liberal registration procedures. Nonetheless, the NAACP and other civil rights groups will cry foul if Congress decides to allow this provision of the act to sunset -- as it was intended to even in the original act. Section 5 was supposed to be a temporary part of the law. It was first due to expire in 1970 -- but Congress then extended it, and again in 1975, 1982 and 1992, and it is up for reauthorization again in two years.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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