Debate heats up on renewing parts of 1965 voting rights law


NEW YORK (AP) – On what would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” voting rights marchers in March 1965 reached the highest point on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, Ala., and saw a blue sea of uniforms awaiting them at the end of the bridge.

Television would show images of Alabama state troopers armed with guns, night sticks, bull whips and tear gas severely beating marchers. Days later, President Lyndon Johnson promised to bring Congress an effective voting rights bill, and that August he signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, considered one of the most significant laws in the nation’s history.

Now, more than four decades later, sections of the act are set to expire. The looming expiration date – Aug. 6, 2007 – has ignited debate over the provisions’ effectiveness and relevance, and over whether they should be extended.

It also has generated rumors, mostly on the Internet, that black Americans will lose the right to vote en masse next year. The rumors have prompted officials at the U.S. Justice Department to post a notice on their Web site.

“It’s important for folks to know that the right to vote – even if those sections expire – will not expire,” said Justice Department spokesman Eric W. Holland.

The provisions – last renewed by Congress in 1982 for 25 years – cover a wide range of protections. They allow the government to approve new voting procedures in areas with histories of discrimination and send election monitors to make sure voters are allowed to cast ballots and their votes are counted. The provisions also send officials to register voters in counties where blacks are refused registration.

“It’s a myth that we stand to lose the right to vote, but we do stand to lose critical protections that have allowed us to participate fully in the political process,” said Debo Adegbile, associate director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We’ve seen consistently, even with the provisions in place, continuing efforts to weaken minority voices in the electoral process.”

The provisions also require interpreters and translated election materials in precincts with high populations of non-white voters who have difficulty understanding English, said Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The issue has slowly been making its way through Congress and the Justice Department and President Bush both support renewing the provisions. Some opponents, however, question whether the provisions remain relevant and effective.

Edward J. Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, testified before a congressional committee recently that the provisions are outdated.

“Bull Connor is dead,” he said, referring to the notorious segregationist police commissioner in Birmingham, Ala. “And so is every Jim Crow-era segregationist intent on keeping blacks from the polls.”

In 1965, Congress found “rampant racial discrimination” in Southern elections, he said. “By today however, the data simply do not support a similar finding.”

But Adegbile, the NAACP defense fund lawyer, said some provisions in the law are important, especially a section that requires federal approval for election changes.

Adegbile said that in Louisiana alone, the Justice Department has blocked nearly 100 proposed election changes since 1982. The changes, he said, would have diminished or weakened minority voter participation.

The debate continues as election troubles from 2000 and 2004 remain a sore spot for many. Long lines, flawed lists of ineligible voters, faulty ballots and machines – often in predominantly black precincts – were among the problems that plagued the elections.

Although those troubles had “racial overtones,” they were considered administrative glitches, which the 2002 Help America Vote Act supposedly addresses for all voters, Adegbile said.

Most of the sections about to expire, he explained, resulted from blatantly race-based, often violent tactics, such as the 1965 Pettus bridge attack.

Before then, blacks already had voting rights, in theory at least, Adegbile pointed out. Shortly after the Civil War, the 15th Amendment gave formerly enslaved African-Americans voting rights.

“But for nearly 100 years it was ignored and we lived through a long and infamous period during which America espoused high constitutional principles but lived low anti-democratic practices,” Adegbile said, referring to poll taxes and other practices used to keep black citizens from voting.

Without the Voting Rights Act and the provisions set to expire, “the 15th Amendment would’ve continued to be a dead letter,” he said.

AP-ES-03-31-06 0453EST