House bill takes aim at minority voters

October 31, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- An ugly bit of business transpired recently in the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, where Republican hard-liners succeeded in passing a measure that would limit the ability of nonprofit groups to conduct voter registration drives.

It was one of those moments when you don't have to wonder what the Islamic radical faction of the GOP is up to: They want to restrict the franchise to people who think as they do.

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and veteran of the civil rights movement, said the measure would "take us back to 1964 or 1965. I just think they [Republicans] want to be in a position to stifle the participation of poor people and minorities in the political process. They want to take us back to another period."

This heavy-handed step was of a piece with other Republican efforts to place obstacles in the way of voters they fear might favor Democrats. In Georgia, the GOP-dominated legislature passed a law this year requiring all voters to have a state-sponsored photo ID, such as a driver's license. Fortunately, a federal court has ruled the law an unconstitutional impediment to voting.

In South Dakota, Republican legislators were more successful with their onerous voter ID requirement, passed in 2003 and apparently aimed at Native Americans, who also tend to support Democrats. Last year, though, two Republican senators, Christopher S. Bond of Missouri and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, failed in their attempt to sneak a provision into law that would have prohibited public housing sites from hosting voter registration initiatives and get-out-the-vote drives.

The recent partisan power play took the form of an amendment tacked onto legislation intended to increase regulatory oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage financing companies recently plagued by accounting scandals. The House bill included a sorely needed provision to create a fund for affordable housing, prompted by calls for federal aid to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

But to placate an ultraconservative group called the Republican Study Committee, an amendment was added that prohibits any nonprofit group from receiving any of the federal affordable housing funds if it has conducted a voter registration campaign in the past year, even if it has used its own funds to do so.

This is not a poll tax; this is a poll ax. If this measure becomes law - the Senate has not acted on it - it will penalize countless organizations, including churches, that have run voter registration drives and also built high-rises for the elderly and low-cost apartment complexes.

Republicans seem to think that residents of low-cost housing, especially black and brown residents, have a tendency - one they find troubling - to vote Democratic. You'd think the GOP would find a way to appeal to those voters. But that would require the party to forsake its allegiance to big business and the wealthy. So, instead, it has decided to try to suppress the vote among citizens of color.

Among the more than 600 nonprofits that protested the amendment was Catholic Charities USA. "Nonprofits with expertise in housing should not have to choose between two equally important missions: supporting full participation in our democracy and providing affordable housing," the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of the group, said in a letter to House GOP leaders.

GOP backers of the amendment say all they're trying to do is make sure that federal funds are not used to support partisan political activities. There's just one problem: That's already illegal.

Given the apathy so many Americans show toward the franchise, you'd think our political leaders would be doing everything possible to encourage more citizens to vote. As Mr. Lewis put it, "We go around the world telling people to participate in the political process." Isn't that exactly what we should be telling people - all the people, regardless of color or class or political affiliation - here at home?

Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is cynthia@ajc.com.

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