President Bush on Thursday signed a 25-year extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and promised to vigorously enforce its political protections for minorities.
At a ceremony on the White House lawn, Bush said the landmark legislation had broken “the segregationist lock on the ballot box.”
The law outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests and other obstacles that had prevented blacks and other minorities and the poor from exercising their right to vote, especially in the Deep South.
The Senate passed the renewal unanimously after the House of Representatives approved it by 390-33. Some lawmakers had opposed portions of the bill that renewed scrutiny on states with a legacy of voting-rights violations and required bilingual ballots in some cases.
The signing ceremony was attended by family members of civil rights heroines Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, and by civil rights activists such as Al Sharpton and Bruce Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Bush, who won the votes of only around one in 10 blacks in his presidential races, has tried to improve his standing with black voters and last week gave a speech to the NAACP for the first time since taking office.
“The right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political futures lies at the heart of the America experience,” Bush said at the signing ceremony.
“My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law and we will defend it in court,” he added.
Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat, said he viewed the promise as important but he expressed caution citing previous administration stances on issues related to voting rights.
“I’ve got to take him at word but we’ve got to hold his feet to the fire,” Scott said.
However, in Congress, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sharply criticized Republicans for filing a last-minute explanation of the bill that could undermine the law if it is eventually challenged in court.
Such reports are usually filed before a bill is voted on, not after.
The House and Senate compiled thousands of pages of testimony to create a record to protect the legislation in a court challenge.
Leahy said the last-minute report did not reflect the record of those hearings. The full text of the Republican report was unavailable late on Thursday but Democrats said a draft had included suggestions that the extra scrutiny for nine states — and parts of seven others — was no longer necessary.
(Additional reporting by Joanne Kenen)
© 2006 Reuters