Supporters of the Voting Rights Act acknowledge they know no member of Congress who wants to scrap it. But with hearings beginning Tuesday, Congress is hardly their biggest concern.
The House Judiciary Committee this week holds the first two of what could be more than a dozen congressional hearings into extending key provisions of the 1965 law for another 25 years. While congressional approval may seem inevitable, advocates insist exhaustive hearings are necessary to ensure the extension stands up in court.
“We’re trying to build a record,” said Laughlin McDonald, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. “We are anticipating a challenge to what Congress might do.”
The Constitution’s 15th Amendment guarantees people of all races the right to vote, and most aspects of the Voting Rights Act — which forbids literacy tests and other impediments for minorities — will never expire.
But other key provisions will expire in 2007 without congressional action. One requires states with a history of racial discrimination, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing their election laws. Another mandates bilingual election assistance for those who do not speak English.
McDonald says he expects to win the political fight in Congress. But if it comes down to a legal fight, all bets are off, which is why the evidence presented at this week’s hearings could be critical.
In recent years, the Supreme Court and U.S. Justice Department have narrowly interpreted several of the original act’s key elements, much to the chagrin of civil rights activists.
Most glaring, they say, was the 2003 case Georgia v. Ashcroft. The Supreme Court seemed to suggest in its ruling that states can change their district lines provided black voters are still able to influence an election, regardless of whether their preferred candidates are elected.
McDonald says that was never the intent of the Voting Rights Act, which was established to ensure minority representation — or at least their right to pick candidates of their choice. He says he’d like Congress to clarify that as part of the extension.
“There is a consensus in the civil rights community that Georgia v. Ashcroft ought to be fixed,” McDonald said.
Beyond that and a few other small changes, civil rights activists want Congress to pass a clean 25-year extension. They oppose using the bill as a forum for new legislation governing voting machines and are also against a permanent extension, which could make the whole law prone to legal attack.
“The reauthorization process is an opportunity to take stock of where we are and, if necessary, to make adjustments that will protect and strengthen the act,” John Conyers of Michigan, the House Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said in a recent opinion column.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., also supports extensive hearings and has scheduled the first two for Tuesday and Thursday of this week. The first will involve an overview of the 1965 act and its subsequent amendments. The second will focus on the expiring provisions, including Section 5, which requires federal approval for changing voting laws, and Section 203, which concerns bilingual assistance at the polls.
“The Voting Rights Act has brought voting rights to millions of Americans previously denied their right to vote,” Sensenbrenner said. “While some sections of the law will not expire until 2007, I strongly believe now is the time for the Judiciary Committee to begin a thorough examination to reauthorize this critical legislation.”