House extends voting rights

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)

© 2006 Reuters