Make voting rights' provisions permanent


Amendment XV to the U.S. Constitution: Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

TWO weeks from today, August 6, marks the 40th year of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made it illegal for poll workers to use sinister tactics to keep black people from exercising their civic responsibility.

Of course, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, quoted above, and ratified in 1870, gave black Americans the right to vote. But in the following decades poll workers, especially in southern states, hindered blacks from voting by using literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause.

But President Johnson's signature on the voting rights legislation didn't only allow minorities to freely go to the polls to vote. It also gave federal officials the authority to monitor voting in districts and states that historically denied minorities that right.

Now, parts of the law will expire in two years, and there's a rising debate as to whether Congress should reauthorize the provisions or let them expire. House Republicans are smartly moving now to ensure that the provisions are reauthorized. At this point any opposition to reauthorization is nowhere near the same level of those who support renewing the provisions. But there are opponents, and they are not to be ignored.

The Voting Rights Act was last extended in 1982, when it was reauthorized for 25 years. It was extended twice before that, in 1972 and 1968. It's wise that the GOP-controlled Congress is taking steps to address the issue two years before the provisions are set to expire. It wouldn't look good for the Republicans to procrastinate and run out of time and let the provisions expire.

And 2007 is also the year before the next presidential election, and it sure wouldn't look good for Republicans to blatantly turn back the hands of time by not renewing provisions in the act that protect minorities' voting rights.

Every section of the law is vital. But Section 5 is a provision that requires some voting jurisdictions - especially those with a history of disenfranchisement - to first get the OK from federal authorities before they make changes in voting laws, procedures, or redistricting. Other sections that are up for reauthorization allow for those who need bilingual assistance to have it and for federal authorities to observe actual voting.

Conservatives wonder why the need to renew the provisions - no surprise there, and wouldn't you know U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is one of them?

"What is important is that we have in place a system that ensures the voting opportunities for every American. It may be Section 5 is the best way to achieve that. It may not be," he said.

If he thinks we can remove Section 5 and expect no fallout, he's not living in the same America I live in. Remove that provision and there will again be events like those that led to the creation of the Voting Rights Act in the first place. Also notice that the attorney general didn't offer a better plan. So he might as well throw his weak support behind reauthorizing the law's sections. Fortunately, the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP will closely scrutinize events to make sure the Voting Rights Act remains as solid as it is now.

Thankfully, Wisconsin Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, will introduce an extension for the law.

He said earlier this month, "Ladies and gentlemen, while we have made progress and curtailed injustices thanks to the Voting Rights Act, our work is not yet complete. We cannot let discriminatory practices of the past resurface to threaten future gains. The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist, and exist in its current form."

Although I couldn't have said it better myself, I wonder: Why doesn't Congress make those provisions permanent, once and for all, so this doesn't have to come up again in another 25 or however many more years?