The Houston Chronicle is reporting that Texas Republicans in the House of Representatives Wednesday successfully stalled the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the crowning legislation of the civil rights movement.
A bill to extend the law for 25 years has support from the White House, top legislative leaders of both parties and a key, GOP-controlled committee that passed it 33 to 1.
But the bill was delayed after objections from the Texas lawmakers to the requirement that the state must get permission, or “preclearance,” from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to voting standards, practices or procedures.
The San Jose Mercury News reports that GOP leaders called off a 90-minute debate over the widely praised Voting Rights Act extension after southern Republicans asked for a delay in a closed-door caucus meeting.
The Dallas Morning News reports civil rights advocates are unmoved by Texas’ complaint that the Act unfairly penalizes the specially covered states.
Supporters say “fairness” is a smokescreen for an effort to end federal oversight of local election procedures.
At the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, executive director Wade Henderson blamed a “small band of miscreants” and “saboteurs.”
“Those members who held up today’s vote represent retrogressive forces that America hasn’t seen at this level since the 1960s,” he said.
The Voting Rights Act, according to a Justice Department web site, “is generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress.” In blocking its renewal, Texas Republican lawmakers are claiming it is no longer needed.
“I don’t think we have racial bias in Texas anymore,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.
In 1975, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to protect people with a limited knowledge of English and added special provisions applying to Texas, Arizona and Alaska. The law was extended for 25 years in 1982. At issue are provisions in section 5, set to expire next year, that require states to “preclear” any changes to election standards, practices or procedures.
The Texas Republicans want preclearance to be required of all states if it is required of any. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tyler) introduced an amendment Tuesday that would have amended section 5 accordingly, but House leaders refused to allow debate.
Another idea put forward by the Texas Republicans makes the Justice Department responsible for determining which states must preclear.
In addition to the preclearance issue, Texas Republicans object to provisions in the law requiring assistance for voters who aren’t English proficient.
Several Texas Republicans also objected to the law’s requirement that jurisdictions print ballots in other languages if 5 percent or more of their voting-age populations have limited English skills.
“I simply believe you should be able to read, write and speak English to be a voter in the United States,” Carter said.
Ultimately, the Texas Republicans prevailed upon House leadership to delay any action on H.R. 9 until after the Supreme Court hands down its decision on the Texas Redistricting cases, expected any day now.
Oral arguments were heard March 1. The New York Times reported that the tone of oral arguments indicated that at least one district would be overturned; however few court watchers think the court will throw out the entire 2003 redistricting plan.
According to the HChron, Rep. Carter argued that the House should wait a week or two before renewing the Voting Rights Act. “We should wait and see what it says,” Carter said. “Nobody is arguing that we don’t need a Voting Rights Act.”
If the Court largely rejects Texas Democrats’ claims under the VRA in the redistricting cases, House Republican leadership might be more amenable to the Gohmert amendment, or perhaps a new amendment striking section 5 preclearance altogether.
On the other hand, if the Court orders even one of the districts in Texas to be re-drawn, the House leadership would likely press for passage of the H. R. 9 with no further changes. The “Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006″ has 152 co-sponsors, more than one-third of the House membership.