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Published: Thursday, 7/20/2006

Saving face on voting rights

IN PUSHING through a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act, the leadership of majority Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives has saved the party from its own baser instincts on matters of race.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert sensed correctly that it would not look good for the GOP in this election year for the chamber to scuttle a law that has protected the rights of minority voters for the past quarter century - even though that is precisely what many Republican lawmakers wanted to do.

So Mr. Hastert engineered a vote in which the act was finally renewed by a 357-vote margin but only after the most conservative members of the GOP caucuses were given a chance to vent their spleens.

"Today, Republicans and Democrats have united in a historic vote to preserve and protect one of America's most important fundamental rights - the right to vote," the speaker said following the vote.

That's nice rhetoric, but a look at the vote tallies on four amendments offered by GOP members to weaken or gut the act shows that three were favored by a majority of Republicans. The law was preserved with its teeth intact only because of overwhelming Democratic support.

If it had been solely up to Republicans, the Voting Rights Act would be history. Which is precisely why the law is still needed.

The unfortunate fact of our society today is that racial discrimination still infects public policy in many areas, including some state election systems. Bias that results in laws intended to suppress minority voting may not be as overt or widespread as in the century-long struggle after the Civil War, but it exists just the same.

The evidence: resurgence of more subtle measures such as Georgia's voter-identification law, recently overturned in federal court, and even outside of the South in the tortuous and unnecessary changes in Ohio's election statutes, which are making voter registration here more difficult.

The Senate is the next obstacle for renewal of the act, and arguments against it similar to those voiced in the House are expected.

If GOP leaders there are as smart as Speaker Hastert, they will not put up any roadblocks that would derail extension of this landmark legislation, which has proven to be crucial to maintaining some semblance of an egalitarian and just society in these United States.

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