Voting rights act blocked

A bipartisan bill to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a crown jewel of the U.S. civil rights era, was unexpectedly and indefinitely delayed on Wednesday due to objections by some southern Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The controversy centered on extra scrutiny faced by nine states in the U.S. South with a legacy of civil rights violations, and on requirements that some districts supply bilingual ballots to voters whose English is poor.

House Republican leaders, who had expected a straightforward vote with support from both Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday afternoon, instead indefinitely put off consideration of the bill after a furor in a routine weekly party meeting in the morning.

A vote is not likely before the July 4th holiday break although Republican leaders issued a joint statement restating their commitment to passage “as soon as possible.”

Democratic Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, speaking for the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the postponement. “We fear that pulling the bill could send the wrong message about whether the bill enjoys broad bipartisan support.”

Much of the 1965 law is permanent but parts must be renewed periodically. Those sections would expire in 2007 unless Congress acts.

In an unusual show of unity last month, Republicans and Democrats from both the House and the Senate agreed to renew the law for 25 years and hoped to enact it within weeks. It turned out to be harder than expected.

One controversial section needing renewal is a requirement that any state or county with a history of discrimination get pre-approval from the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court before they change their election laws or procedures.

Some southern lawmakers including Georgia Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood wanted to revise that section, and did get the go-ahead to offer amendments on the House floor. Acknowledging that it was politically dangerous to oppose the Voting Rights Act, Norwood said he would vote against it “and take the whip” if his amendment was not ultimately accepted.

The other big issue centered on requirements that certain jurisdictions offer bilingual ballots and language assistance to citizens whose English lags. But Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King and other lawmakers who oppose the bilingual rules were not going to have a chance to offer amendments.

King said in a statement it was irresponsible to “institutionalize multilingual voting for the next 25 years.” He said bilingual voting, which was not part of the original voting rights bill but was added a decade later, drives “a wedge between cultures.”

Some critics of the Voting Rights Act argue it is no longer necessary because it addresses forms of discrimination that are now part of history but supporters cite ongoing problems, albeit on a smaller scale, in some regions.

“The nine southern states that receive extra scrutiny under Section 5 of the VRA are states where minorities still report serious and intentionally manufactured barriers to voting,” said California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters.

¬© 2006 Reuters