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October 18, 2005

Do Not Renew Voting Rights Act Provisions

I have to disagree with the call by Jack Kemp, one of the heroes of my youth, to renew certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2007.

It is important that Congress renew all three provisions that are set to expire: Section 5, which requires federal approval for proposed changes in voting or election procedures in areas with a history of discrimination; Section 203, which requires some jurisdictions to provide assistance in other languages to voters who are not literate or fluent in English; and the portions of Sections 6-9 of the Act that authorize the federal government to send federal election examiners and observers to certain jurisdictions covered by Section 5, where there is evidence of attempts to intimidate minority voters at the polls.

Now some of you may ask how I could possibly object to these provisions. The answer is a simple and commonsense one. These provisions do not apply equally across the United States, but rather are applicable to only some parts of the country. In addition, some of the provisions interfere with state and local powers in a manner which is constitutionally suspect.

Take, for example, Section 5 of the Act, which requires federal approval for changes in voting and election procedures. This extra step takes away decisions on what voting machines to use or how to draw local election lines from those on the local level and ultimately vests those decisions with the Department of Justice. These are, however, ultimately state matters, not federal issues.

This even creates situations in which there is federal involvement in local annexation decisions. Some thirty years ago, the city of Houston was required to fundamentally alter its form of government because it annexed an area slated for increased commercial and residential development -- on the basis that this economic decision increased the white population and was therefore detrimental to black political participation. Less than a decade ago, another annexation required the creation of a 50-mile long district connected by bayous and drainage ditches so as to not overwhelm a contiguous minority district with white voters who might (only might) elect a white instead of a black or Hispanic city council member. Neither of the annexations was about race -- both were about increased property taxes. Had the same sort of annexation taken place in another part of the country -- say in Seattle -- the federal government would have had no role in directing what was fundamentally a local decision. Four decades after the passage of this temporary solution to a critical problem, it is time to let the remedy expire as the authors of the legislation intended -- or to expand the provision to subject the entire country to federal oversight. The latter would, of course, be one more nail in the coffin of federalism and states' rights, and so is not particularly appealing to those of us who still believe in the US Constitution.

Similarly, the provisions of Section 6-9 that authorize federal examiners and observers need to either be dropped or expanded to cover the entire nation. Significant acts of minority voter intimidation are rare -- and they are just as likely to exist in areas not covered by Sections 6-9. Either provide protection nationwide, or cease imposing the burden on areas where discrimination was common four decades ago but where it is no more likely today than in other parts of the country. And might I also suggest that federal authority be expanded to include intimidation of citizens by ideologically motivated liberals, as was frequently documented during the 2004 election campaign? After all, civil rights violations are just as severe if they are based upon ideology as they are when based upon race.

As far as the question of interpreters goes, I have no problem with the requirement as it is written -- but believe it should be modified to allow for mechanical/technological solutions to the problem of non-English speaking and illiterate voters. I'm the election judge in my precinct, and our voting machines include both written and spoken (via headphones) versions of the ballot in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Is a live interpreter really necessary in such a situation? I do not believe so -- but the VRA as currently written requires a warm body be present.

Besides, even if the entire Voting Rights Act were to be repealed, there are still powerful tools available to those who would seek to protect the voting rights of every citizen. They are the very provisions of the US Constitution that expand and guarantee the franchise, and they need no special legislation that discriminates against certain parts of the country.

So I am sorry, but I have to disagree with my college hero -- the man who I supported and campaigned for with all my heart in the 1988 race for the GOP nomination -- on the issue of rubber stamping the renewal of these few provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were designed as temporary measures that expired with the passage of time. Let them expire, or fix them to meet the realities of the present day.



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