Voting rights and wrongs

July 05, 2006

It was a signature accomplishment of the civil rights movement - the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to remove decades of minority disenfranchisement, especially among blacks in the Deep South.

Some of the law's important enforcement protections need to be renewed by next year, and Republican lawmakers were hoping their support for renewal would gain them some minority votes come November. But recently the measure was abruptly held from a floor vote in the House on the objections of a handful of GOP members. More-sensible supporters should prevail, bring the measure to a vote and pass it.

Often called the most effective civil rights measure, the Voting Rights Act outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests and other intimidating tactics that had been used for years to undercut the 15th Amendment's assurance that the right to vote could not be denied because of skin color. It has opened doors to meaningful political participation by blacks and other minorities in Maryland and across the country, and in doing so has changed the faces that serve from Congress to city councils. Previous renewals have been approved by Democratic and Republican presidents. And the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that Texas' efforts to dilute the Latino vote, as part of its crazy-quilt congressional redistricting plan, were an intolerable violation of the law.

Several oversight hearings conducted by a House subcommittee also found new forms of discrimination, including annexations, polling place changes and other questionable election procedures. Among the key amendments being considered is one that reinforces the U.S. attorney general's ability to block certain discriminatory voting changes in nine states that are required to clear election law changes because of their oppressive voting rights history. Another gives American citizens with limited command of English the right to have ballots printed in another language and interpreters at polling places.

Anti-immigrant and English-only fever as well as the fact that several states are chafing under the clearance requirements have caused some members of the Republican caucus to raise questions about the reauthorization, and this prompted House leaders to scratch a scheduled floor debate two weeks ago. The leaders should get past such stalling tactics, bring the measure to the floor for a full and open debate - and then give the reauthorization the approval it deserves.

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