FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today strongly condemned a proposal by several Republican members of Congress to "modernize" the Voting Rights Act, noting that the move would actually gut a key enforcement provision of the historic civil rights law. The amendment was to be offered to H.R. 9, "The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006," that was introduced with strong bipartisan support on May 2.
The reauthorization bill was slated for discussion and a vote on the House floor on June 20, and the authors of the amendments forced a delay in action as they had found little support.
"When some Members of Congress claim they support the Voting Rights Act, and just want to `modernize’ it, they are being completely hypocritical," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "Their proposal would actually gut one of the Voting Rights Act’s key provisions. This is political double-talk at its worst, and is particularly offensive given that the right to vote is at stake."
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia, and supported by other Republican members of the Georgia delegation, including Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, would "update" the formula used to determine which states and local governments would retain the protection of Section 5 of the VRA, which requires jurisdictions with significant histories of discrimination in voting to get federal approval of any new voting practices or procedures. On June 20, the House Committee on Rules allowed Norwood’s amendment to be considered when Congress votes on H.R. 9.
Currently nine states (Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and Arkansas) and portions of seven others (New York, California, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Dakota) are covered by Section 5. Under the Norwood amendment Hawaii would be the only state fully covered.
Instead of relying on the extensive record of voting discrimination in the covered jurisdictions, Norwood's amendment would rely on levels of voter turnout in the last three presidential elections to determine which states, if any, would remain covered. His amendment would put only Hawaii under the coverage of the protective pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
"The proposal sponsored by Representatives Norwood, Westmoreland and others would render Section 5 meaningless," said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "It would make Hawaii - a state which has never been subject to the pre-clearance requirement - the only covered state in the nation. States like Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and South Dakota, with egregious and especially well-documented histories of discrimination, could adopt new voting practices without having to show that they did not have a discriminatory purpose or effect."
The ACLU has urged Congress to quickly adopt a clean reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and stressed the importance of continuing legislation that ensures all citizens have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
"The Norwood-Westmoreland proposal is a backdoor attempt to repeal Section 5," said LaShawn Warren, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "Congress has repeatedly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act based on continuing racial polarization and attempts by covered jurisdictions to discriminate against minority voters. And the courts have consistently rejected claims that Section 5 is unconstitutional and that the coverage formula is ‘outdated.’ As one court held, Section 5 has a 'much larger purpose' than to increase voter participation. Norwood, Westmoreland and their supporters are trying to eliminate vital protections of the Voting Rights Act."
H.R. 9 would also reauthorize two other key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act: Section 203, which ensures that U.S. citizen voters with limited English proficiency get the help they need at the polls; and Section 8, which authorizes the attorney general to appoint federal election observers where there is evidence of attempts to intimidate minority voters at the polls. The ACLU noted that all three sections have been essential to eliminating and deterring voting discrimination and granting access to the ballot box for minority citizens, but Section 5 has drawn the most opposition from a dissident faction of Republican lawmakers.
The ACLU's letter to Congress urging passage of H.R. 9 is available at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/25951leg20060620.html
To read more about the ACLU’s campaign to renew the Voting Rights Act, go to: www.aclu.org/voting-rights