July 13, 2006

House backs Voting Rights Act extension

By Amanda Beck

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on
Thursday overwhelmingly approved a 25-year extension of the
1965 Voting Rights Act, which would preserve for another
generation a law that opened voting booths to minorities.

Often described as the crown jewel of the civil rights era,
the Voting Rights Act outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests and
other obstacles that had prevented African Americans and other
minorities from exercising their right to vote.

Since then, minorities have voted in larger numbers, and
more have been elected to local and national office.

Most of the act is permanent, but portions expire if not
renewed periodically. The House vote was 390-33, and the Senate
is expected to give the bill, backed by President George W.
Bush, similar bipartisan support later this year.

"Today, Republicans and Democrats have united in a historic
vote to preserve and protect one of America's most important
rights -- the right to vote," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said
in a statement released after he was admitted to a nearby
hospital for treatment of a skin infection.

"There is no more important power that our citizens hold
and that right must be guaranteed for everyone regardless of
race," the Illinois Republican added.

House leaders had hoped to pass the bill, named for civil
rights heroines Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott
King, in June but were forced into a last-minute cancellation
when conservative Republicans argued it was time to change some
provisions. They said southern states were not being given
credit for changes they had made since the 1960s.

Controversy centered on two issues -- extra scrutiny for
mostly southern states with a legacy of voting discrimination
against minorities and a requirement to provide bilingual
ballots to citizens with poor English.

Amendments that would have softened or eliminated those
sections were easily defeated.

Virginia Democrat Robert Scott said there was a good reason
certain states and counties still need advance clearance from
the Justice Department to make changes in electoral practices.

"They got covered the old-fashioned way -- they earned it,"
Scott said.

Georgia Democrat Rep. John Lewis, who came to national
renown as a young civil rights leader, delivered an emotional
speech recalling how he was nearly beaten to death in Selma,
Alabama, during a march for the right to vote.

"The sad truth is discrimination still exists," Lewis said.
"We must not go back to the dark past."

"We need the Voting Rights Act because in the last 25 years
the covered jurisdictions have not come through," Judiciary
Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican,
said, listing scores of violations since it was last renewed.

Many black and Hispanic lawmakers described the changes
they have witnessed in their own lives since its passage.

Some recalled their parents struggling with literacy tests
-- such as reciting by memory the names of all U.S. presidents
in chronological order -- designed to keep blacks away from the
ballot box.

(Additional reporting by Joanne Kenen)