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Senate renews voting rights act

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July 21, 2006

By LAURIE KELLMAN

The Senate voted 98-0 to renew the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act for another quarter-century Thursday, with Democrats joined in praising the once-controversial law by Republicans hoping to improve their party’s election-year standing with minority voters.

The legislation, which now goes to President Bush for his signature, opened voting booths to millions of minorities after its passage at the height of the nation’s civil rights struggle.

The Senate approved the legislation after Bush told the NAACP earlier in the day that he looked forward to signing it. The House passed the bill last week.

"It’s a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart," Bush said. "I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party."

A centerpiece of the 1960s civil rights movement, the law ended poll taxes, literacy tests and other election devices that had been used for decades to keep blacks from voting.

"The Voting Rights Act has worked. It has achieved its intended purpose," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, who timed the Senate’s debate to occur while Bush made his first-ever address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The House passed the bill last week 390-33 with opposition mostly from Southern lawmakers who objected to renewing a law that requires their states win Justice Department approval before changing any voting rules — punishment, they said, for racist practices decades in the past.

Some also objected to provisions that require jurisdictions with large populations of non-English-speaking citizens to print ballots in languages other than English.

Several Southern senators echoed the concerns of their House counterparts, but there were few obstacles to passage in that chamber.

"Is this the very best that we can do at this time? Yes, it is," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Others showered the law with praise for its successes. The act was still necessary, proponents said, pointing to congressional hearings that showed certain districts still make it harder for minorities and citizens with limited understanding of English to be informed when they cast ballots.

The effect of the law "has been profound, to put it mildly," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., whose panel a day earlier approved the renewal, 18-0.

"It will not remove all discrimination by any means," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "But it is a major step to let everybody in the country know that all of us — all of us — are equal as Americans with equal rights, no matter the color of our skin."

The legislation would renew several provisions of the law set to expire next year. They include one requiring jurisdictions with large populations of voters who do not speak English to print ballots in several languages and provide other assistance.

Some lawmakers had complained that the policy discourages people from learning English. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said that most people who need the assistance were born here and deserve the help.

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The bill is H.R. 9.

© 2006 The Associated Press