ACLU Letter to the House of Representative Regarding the Impending Floor Vote on Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 (H.R. 9)

June 20, 2006
Re: Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 (H.R.  9)

Dear Representatives:

A floor vote on the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 (H.R. 9) is expected this Wednesday, June 21, 2006.  On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and its hundreds of thousands of members, activists, and fifty-three affiliates nationwide, we write to urge you to support this legislation and oppose any amendments that would weaken or compromise the spirit or effectiveness of the law.

H.R. 9 Renews And Restores Key Provisions Of The VRA.

This bill would reauthorize three key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which are set to expire in 2007.  These provisions include: Section 5, which requires jurisdictions with significant histories of discrimination in voting to get federal approval of any new voting practices or procedures; 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. These sections have been essential to eliminating and deterring voting discrimination and granting access to the ballot box for minority citizens.  

In addition to reauthorizing the expiring provisions, the legislation would address two recent Supreme Court decisions that have severely eroded the effectiveness of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—Reno v. Bossier Parish II and Georgia v. Ashcroft.  H.R. 9 restores the original congressional intent of the VRA by making certain that Section 5 can block voting changes that intentionally discriminate against minority voters.  In addition, it restores Section 5 so that minority voters have the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice who share their values, interests and concerns.[1]  The Act also would increase access to the courts by allowing the recovery of expert witness fees for plaintiffs.  Expert witness testimony in voting rights cases is essential for proving that voting discrimination exists.
    
We Urge Members To Oppose Weakening Amendments.

Some members of Congress are attempting to amend H.R. 9 in an effort to weaken or eliminate key enforcement provisions that prevent discrimination.  Indeed, some members have proposed amendments they describe as an attempt to “modernize” the VRA, but that, in reality, would significantly undercut the VRA and make it subject to constitutional challenge. 

It has been proposed, for example, that the current formula for determining state coverage be changed to reflect more current voting demographics.  However, this suggestion by opponents of the bill would eliminate the Act’s oversight of those jurisdictions where the current record demonstrates a long and continuing history of discrimination in voting.  Congress has appropriately focused both on the history of discrimination that gave rise to the coverage formula, and the evidence of current and persisting forms of discrimination in order to evaluate which jurisdictions remain subject to the special requirements of Section 5. 

Furthermore, the bailout provision of the VRA works to ensure that the scope of Section 5 is not overbroad or otherwise constitutionally flawed.  Congress designed the bailout formula to allow a jurisdiction that could demonstrate it had taken sufficient steps to remove bars to minority enfranchisement to be released from preclearance.  All jurisdictions that have attempted to bail-out from coverage have been able to do so successfully.  If, however, Section 5 or the bailout provision were to be weakened, then formerly covered jurisdictions will have escaped the need to make a showing of real progress in enfranchising their minority voters.

It has also been proposed that Section 5 apply nationwide.  Doing so would be a “poison pill” for the VRA.  Currently, Section 5 is specifically directed at jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against minority voters.  Making Section 5 apply nationwide would make it overly broad and unable to meet the Supreme Court’s requirements that Section 5 be "narrowly tailored" or "congruent and proportional" to address the harms it is designed to cure.  It is critical that Section 5 and its coverage formula stay intact.

The Congressional Record Is Strong And Supports Reauthorization.

The House and Senate have held extensive hearings to examine whether there is a continuing need for the VRA.  The record shows that while progress has been made, there is overwhelming evidence that voting discrimination persists in jurisdictions covered by Section 5 and Section 203.  In fact, since the VRA was last reauthorized in 1982, the Department of Justice and disfranchised voters have brought hundreds of cases of intentional voter discrimination before the courts—many within the last five years.  Many reports, including those submitted by the ACLU, document the persistence of continued, purposeful voting discrimination in the covered jurisdictions.[2]  Over 8,000 pages of House and Senate testimony strongly support the continuing need for the VRA. 

Some Members of Congress have protested the appropriateness of their states’ continued coverage under the Act.  For example, despite some Members of the Georgia delegation’s assertions to the contrary, Georgia’s abysmal record of protecting the rights of its minority citizens provides undeniable evidence underscoring the need to continue the vital protections of the VRA in Georgia. 

Since the VRA was last reauthorized in 1982, the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project (VRP) has brought more litigation to enforce voting rights in Georgia than in any other state.  From 1982 to 2005, the ACLU initiated a total of 141 voting rights lawsuits in Georgia, a substantial portion of which were brought under Section 5.  Moreover, more than 70% of the total lawsuits filed by VRP offer concrete evidence of the continued efforts by Georgia officials to discriminate against minority voters.  In all of these instances, Georgia had to change its conduct with respect to its minority voters.

Support For The VRA Is Strongly Bipartisan.

There is precedent for bipartisan support of the VRA.  When the VRA was first passed in 1965, the vast majority of both Republicans and Democrats alike were on the record supporting its critical importance.  Although at that time Republicans were a minority in Congress, on the House side 82% of Republicans supported the Act’s passage, as did 78% of the Democrats.  Moreover, 93% of the Senate Republican caucus and 73% of the Senate Democrats voted for final passage.  More recently, President George W. Bush has stated, “many active citizens struggled hard to convince Congress to pass civil rights legislation that ensured the rights of all – including the right to vote.  That victory was a milestone in the history of civil rights.  Congress must act to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”[3]

Because the expiring provisions of the VRA deter voting discrimination, failure to fully renew and restore the expiring provisions would undoubtedly undermine the progress this country has made in ending voting discrimination.  On Wednesday, June 21, 2006, we strongly urge you to support the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 (H.R. 9) and oppose any weakening amendments.  There is no greater tribute Congress can give to the lives of the women after whom this bill is named than to renew and restore the VRA. 

Sincerely,                               

Caroline Fredrickson, Director ACLU
Washington Legislative Office             

Laughlin McDonald, Director
ACLU Voting Rights Project

LaShawn Warren, Legislative Counsel 
ACLU Washington Legislative Office   

Deborah J. Vagins, Policy Counsel for Civil Rights
ACLU Washington Legislative Office


Endnotes

[1] For more information on these cases, refer to our policy report “Promises to Keep: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in 2006,” available at www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/24396leg20060307.html.
[2]  See “The Case for Extending and Amending the Voting Rights Act: Voting Rights Litigation, 1982-2006: A Report of the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, ” available at www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/24394leg20060306.html.
[3] President George W. Bush, President Celebrates African American History Month at the White House (Feb. 22, 2006) (transcript available at www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/02/20060222-6.html).

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