Chances Of Voting Rights Act Renewal Dim

Suzanne Gamboa, AP, July 12, 2006

Washington—A conservative backlash to the massive street demonstrations over immigration is aggravating Republican leaders’ carefully orchestrated plans to renew the landmark Voting Rights Act before the fall elections.

After Latinos came out in greater force than they have in decades to protest a House-passed immigration bill, conservatives persuaded Republican leaders not to force a vote last month to extend for 25 years the law that requires bilingual ballots in precincts with large non-English-speaking populations.

They joined with a group of Southern Republicans who object to extending the law’s requirement that nine states have federal oversight decades after they quit hindering blacks’ access to voting booths through Jim Crow laws.

Now back from their July 4 recess, House leaders want to try again to extend the 1965 law that outlawed anti-black voting practices and, through later amendments, practices that also discriminated against other minority groups. They were considering a vote on Thursday, but prospects of it occurring were dim.

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Immigration and civil rights groups and lawmakers who support them are mobilized for a fight over what they see as the latest in a long history of attempts to undercut burgeoning political influence of racial minorities.

“The historical record suggests that when minority communities are in a position to exercise political power, efforts to limit that exercise of power follow,” said Debo Adegbile, associate director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Since 1975, the Voting Rights Act has required ballots and other election assistance in languages other than English in jurisdictions where at least 5 percent of voting-age citizens are not proficient in English and literacy rates are below the national average.

As part of its immigration debate earlier this year, the Senate voted to make English the official national language. That effort has flowed into Voting Rights Act deliberations, even though the law applies only to American citizens.

Opponents say renewing the requirement to provide election assistance in other languages discourages people from learning English and is unconstitutional.

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Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said he is puzzled that after 30 years, with no vociferous outcry from communities, there is suddenly an effort to strip out the act’s language requirements.

“It smacks of an effort to impose a 21st-century literacy test,” Morial said.

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Just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court struck down a 2003 redrawing of a Texas congressional district by Republican designers who carved out 100,000 Hispanic voters and replaced them with 100,000 white voters to ensure the re-election of Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas.

The court said the move trampled on Hispanics’ voting rights as they were becoming a political force in the district.

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