J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., attacked by state troopers in 1965 while leading the Selma, Ala., voting rights march, observes the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act at a Library of Congress event on July 26.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 10/4/2005 6:44:54 PM ET 2005-10-04T22:44:54

Getting the jump on Democrats, traditionally the most ardent supporters of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Republican congressional leaders have proclaimed their support for renewal of parts of the law that are set to expire in 2007.

Republicans want to take the issue off the table for the 2006 elections and avoid a repeat of 1982, when the Reagan administration fought with a Democratic-controlled Congress over an expansion of the law.

Today's political climate is much different. Republican strategists are making a determined pitch to black voters, and top-tier black Republican candidates are coming to the fore, offering a chance to reshape the party's image.

“I’m not surprised at all" about the GOP push to renew the Voting Rights Act, said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was one of the leaders of the bloody voting registration march in Selma, Ala., that spurred Congress to pass the law in 1965.

"The Republicans are reaching out to the African-American voters. … They want to make a dent with the black electorate, take some of those voters away from the Democratic side,” he said.

Ninety-five years after the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution assured voting rights to every U.S. citizen regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to fulfill the long-dishonored promise of that amendment.

The law banned the literacy tests, poll taxes and other measures used to keep blacks from voting. Section 5, which is considered by many to be the heart of the law and is up for renewal in 2007, requires that specific jurisdictions get approval from the Justice Department for any changes in voting procedures to ensure that they don't deny blacks the right to vote.

The Justice Department reviews as many as 22,000 local or state voting changes per year, each of which must be approved before a local or state election can go forward. One-quarter of the changes involve moving polling places.

Recently the Justice Department approved a change in a Georgia law that Lewis objects to: It requires voters to show a Georgia driver's license, a passport or some other form of government-issued photographic identification in order to vote.

The law's proponents say it will deter voter fraud. Under the law, if poor people don't have a driver's license or other ID, the state will issue them an ID card at no cost.  

But Lewis contended that the law will discriminate against the poor and the elderly.  He  said he hopes that when Congress reviews the Voting Rights Act,  he will be able to insert a provision that overrides the Georgia law or expands the list of identification accepted by state voting officials.

Success is in the numbers
Today, Section 5 of the law applies to nine states and parts of seven others, mostly in the South.

Statistics indicate how successful the law has been: For example, in 1965, there were hardly any black state legislators or local officials in Mississippi. By 2001, the state had 45 black legislators, a black member of the U.S. House of Representatives and more than 600 county commissioners, mayors and other local office-holders.

Since the late 1970s, the debate over ensuring a fair vote has focused on how far local governments must to go accommodate voters who can't speak or read English.

Section 203 of the law, which also expires in 2007, sets standards for requiring voting information in foreign languages. In all, 299 jurisdictions are covered by Section 203.

Another issue: Must legislative districts be drawn in such a way as to virtually guarantee a system of racial or ethnic representation? The Supreme Court recently has emphasized the view that political gerrymandering is acceptable, indeed inevitable.

GOP commitment to renew law
But much of the debate over the Voting Rights Act centers on Section 5.

Despite the traditional Republican aversion to federal mandates, House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was emphatic in calling for extensions of Sections 5 and 201 in a speech at the NAACP's annual meeting in July.

“I am here to tell you publicly what I have told others privately, including the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Mel Watt: During this Congress we are going to extend the Voting Rights Act,” Sensenbrenner said. “We cannot let discriminatory practices of the past resurface to threaten future gains. The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist — and exist in its current form.”

Sensenbrenner said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., also considered renewal of the law "high on his list of issues the House will address this Congress.”

And Eric Ueland, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said last month that Frist is “fired up” for renewal of Section 5.

A change in tone
The tone from a few prominent Republicans was different a few months ago. When Democrats criticized Bush appeals court nominee William Pryor, the former attorney general of Alabama, for having said in 1997 that the Section 5 was “an affront to federalism and an expensive burden that has far outlived its usefulness,” Republicans such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia defended Pryor’s comments.

And in May, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested that the Bush administration might try to change Section 5. In a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club, Gonzales said, “I think the Voting Rights Act is still very, very important, certainly in certain communities,” but “there is beginning a debate as to whether or not Section 5 should be reauthorized.”

In a speech in August to mark the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Gonzales did not specifically discuss Section 5. Instead, he simply said, "This administration looks forward to working with Congress on the reauthorization of this important legislation."

Whether or not Gonzales has changed his position — and the evidence is unclear — it would strike a discordant note for Republicans, even if some of them were so inclined, to try to weaken Section 5.

Taking the issue off the table
Such a move would create fodder for Democrats to charge that Republicans were insensitive to black voters at the very time that GOP strategists, including Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, are trying to appeal to black voters.

Black GOP candidates also are trying to woo blacks and need the support of the party on issues like voting rights. Likely Senate candidates Michael Steele in Maryland and the Rev. Keith Butler in Michigan, plus gubernatorial contender Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, are three black Republican hopefuls who appear to have great potential in the 2006 elections.

From Mehlman's point of view, it would make no sense to give the Democrats a platform to remind voters of what he sees as an embarrassing past, which included President Nixon's 1968-1973 Southern strategy of wooing white Southern voters and attacking busing as a way to achieve racially integrated schools.

In July, Mehlman told the NAACP that Republican leaders had tried over the past 40 years "to benefit politically from racial polarization." "We were wrong" to do so, he said.

What the experts say about Section 5
But while top Republicans voice support for the Voting Rights Act, one of the nation’s leading voting rights experts, Professor Samuel Issacharoff of Columbia Law School, sparked debate last year by suggesting Section 5 was a victim of its own success.

“No longer are blacks political outsiders” in the South, he said in an article in the Columbia Law Review. “The Southern political process is highly attuned to black political claims. The presumption that Washington represents the only forum for safeguarding black political advancement is tenuous at best.”

Black voters in Dixie now engage in the same political deal-making that other groups practice to capitalize on their power.

For example, Issacharoff said, in Georgia’s 2001 redistricting, black Democratic legislators successfully pushed a remapping plan that sought to “leverage black voting strength by diminishing the concentration of black voters in minority dominated districts'' and spreading their votes across a broader array of districts.

The Supreme Court upheld the Georgia plan.

Another Voting Rights Act expert, Michael Pitts, a visiting professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law and a veteran of four years of practice in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, doesn't believe the law has outlived its usefulness.

“You need Section 5 in order to maintain the gains made in the last 20 years in minority representation and office holding. It is a powerful deterrent to backsliding,” Pitts said.

It seems to be foregone conclusion that for at least the foreseeable future, Section 5 will remain on the books.

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