Voting Rights Act Renewal Stalled in Congress

Renewal of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 hit a surprise snag in Congress last week. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), who helped to derail renewal of the landmark civil rights law, and Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) — whose district includes Selma and Birmingham, epicenters of the civil rights movement — join Ed Gordon to discuss the legislative divide.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Efforts to renew the landmark Voting Rights Act hit a surprising snag in Congress last week. House Republicans closed ranks against the bill, indefinitely delaying a vote. At issue are two provisions in the Act. The first requires nine states with histories of discrimination to get permission from the Justice Department for changing voting districts or procedures.

The second requires districts to print multilingual ballots if they have more than five percent non English speakers. Here to help us better understand the bill and why it's been blocked for the moment are two Congressman at the center of the story, Artur Davis, of Alabama, and Lynn Westmoreland, of Georgia. Gentleman, welcome.

Representative LYNN WESTMORELAND (Republican, Georgia): Thank you for having us, Ed.

GORDON: Congressman Westmoreland, many do see this as an eleventh hour stoppage. Why now?

Rep. WESTMORELAND: Well, I think it has worked in Georgia. It has worked in Alabama and it's worked in the states that have been under the Section 5 portion of it. And you've got to remember, Ed, that only two sections expire, and that's Section 4 and Section 5. The rest of the Voting Rights Act is permanent. But the ones that expire use data from ‘64, ‘68 and ‘72, and we feel like states like Georgia and Alabama and other states have progressed, and we need to know or want to have some type of idea of any way that will ever prove that we have done better. And then, also, some of the things that have happened in past elections such as the Hanging chads in a district that was not covered by pre-clearance, some things that have happened in Wisconsin that have not been covered under pre-clearance, Missouri, give them an opportunity to come into this system and have some of the positive results that happened in the South.

GORDON: All right, Congressman Davis, pick up on what Congressman Westmoreland is suggesting, and that is, in his words, he wants to see the House modernize the Voting Rights Act by creating a formula that judges each state from the previous presidential election, rather than punishing its history.

Representative ARTUR DAVIS (Democrat, Alabama): Two quick points. Number one, we have had extensive hearings from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, both committees which are run by Republicans during the last several years, and they have found that there are contemporaneous and numerous instances of what we would think of as voting rights violations.

Second of all, it sounds good and it sounds easy to say let's make the act apply to the whole country and let's come up with a formula to do that. The problem is that we would have to go through years of Congress conducting new hearings to determine what the trigger would be for which states would be covered. Then the Department of Justice would have to issue its own guidelines. And then the courts would have to get involved. So as a practical matter, the Voting Rights Act would be in suspended animation for two or three election cycles while we were trying to figure out what this new 50 state pre-clearance requirement meant.

GORDON: Congressman Westmoreland, why not have some oversight?

Rep. WESTMORELAND: I'm not saying put all 50 states under it. I'm saying have a formula, much like they did in '65, that all states would have to pass that criteria. So it's not I don't think as far as Congressman Davis is saying, because it was formulated in ‘65, it could be formulated in 2006. Now, as far as states being under pre-clearance, what that means is that if you move your precinct voting place from a Baptist church to a Methodist church, then you have to get the Department of Justice to approve that. And there is no really -Ed, looking at when this pre-clearance can stop, when you have to be running to the Department of Justice every time you want to do a change in your city or county or state.

And right now, the states that are under it can never - you can't go back and change the election results for ‘64, ‘68 and ‘72. So all that a lot of us are saying is, okay, when do we get out from under it, and when do some of these other people or some of these voting irregularities have happened get looked at. That's all we're saying.

Rep. DAVIS; There's no question that there has been improvement in the South. But I would make what ought to be a pretty straightforward proposition. A lot of the improvement is directly attributable to the protections of the Voting Rights Act. We've seen this in the South for 140 years now. When people want to limit the right to vote or to undercut the right to vote, they don't do it sometimes in overt ways. They do it through subtle things. And we may say, well, why is it a big deal whether a precinct is open on Johnson Street or on Smith Street. Well, Smith Street may be a lot more accessible for your low-income seniors.

Johnson Street may be inaccessible for people who don't have cars. When people make decisions about where polling places are going to be, that often has the effect of hurting one class of people and not another. There are counties where blacks are in the majority and the Supreme Court has made it very clear that if whites in those counties are having their voting rights interfered with or threatened by black majority they can also go to court. So the Voting Rights Act is a two-way set of protections for people in states that unfortunately have a history and continuing evidence of using election practices to limit the vote.

GORDON: Let me ask this of Congressman Westmoreland. Some will suggest that we have not made it easier for people to vote in your state, now requiring photo ID to vote may disenfranchise close to 700,000 votes in your state alone. Others will suggest this whole question of multilingual balloting, which many people want and which is a provision that I understand many Republicans are against, does not make it easy for many here to vote. Why not make voting easier?

Rep. WESTMORELAND: I think we should and we have. The voter ID bill is something that was passed by the Georgia legislature. You had to have some identification, whether it was a power bill, a hunting and fishing license, a rent receipt, a telephone bill. In the little survey that you mentioned about the 700,000, we can't purge our registered voter list like you used to, so there's probably a whole bunch of people on that voter registration list that are either moved or died or doesn't have a driver's license.

GORDON: And the multilingual question?

Rep. WESTMORELAND: The multilingual question is this, Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act says if you are physically impaired, if you are blind, or if you are not proficient in English, that you can bring an assistant with you to the poll. Also, you can get those ballot questions before you ever go into the poll in different languages.

GORDON: Artur Davis, there are those who will agree with the Congressman in the sense of why not provide positive identification to make sure you are who you are and a legal voter. Secondly, you may have someone to assist you.

Congressman DAVIS: Ed, there is a button on my TV that will turn everything that I hear in Spanish. I don't hear Congressman Westmoreland and many of his colleagues complaining about that. I certainly haven't seen them bring forward any legislation on it. I think this whole question of voter ID, you've got to unfortunately look at the specifics here. Alabama has voter ID, but we allow all kinds of identification that the state of Georgina doesn't allow. Georgia is much narrower. If you don't have one of these few forms of ID, you have to pay money. Well, that is a tax, in effect, on voting that's supposed to...

Rep. WESTMORELAND: You don't have to pay money. I don't know what you - these IDs are free.

Rep DAVIS: Well, that's not what was the case. It may be that some court has issued an order changing that. But when you all...

Rep. WESTMORELAND: The Georgia General Assembly passed the law this year...

Rep. DAVIS: ...have to get a picture made on the spot and you had to pay for that picture to be made. But let's ask a more basic question: who are the people in our society who don't have driver's licenses? Who are the people who may not have a standing phone address? Who are the people who don't have hunting and fishing licenses? Well, I'll bet you that, black and white, it's low-income Georgians who are the very people who are often disproportionately effected by the choices made in Atlanta.

GORDON: So how do you find a way for common ground to move this forward?

Rep. WESTMORELAND: Well, I sent out a release yesterday asking Congressman Scott and Congressman Lewis to meet with me and let's see if we couldn't sit down and just talk about this thing. And I don't know, you know, where the common ground is, but...

GORDON: We should note that those are two fellow Congressmen in Georgia...

Mr. WESTMORELAND: Yes, sir...

GORDON: ...John Lewis and David Scott.

Mr. WESTMORELAND: Yes, sir...

GORDON: Go ahead.

Mr. WESTMORELAND: And, Ed, if you could just bear with me one minute, I would like to say one thing here in closing, in that in 2001, in Georgia, the Democrats diluted minority voting strength, which brought about the Ashcroft v. Georgia case. Their star witness was Congressman John Lewis, who's looked at as one of the very senior members of the Black Caucus and one of the leaders in the civil rights movement. Here was his testimony in 2001, under oath:

(Reading)"There has been a transformation. It's a different state. It's a different political climate. It's a different political environment. It's, all together, a different world we live in. We've come a great distance, it's not just in Georgia, but in American South. I think people are preparing to lay down the burden of race."

Now that's a quote that he made under oath. And so why not look at the advances that the South and other states have made in this Voting Rights Act. I mean, in 1970, we had 30 black elected officials in Georgia. We have over 600 now.

GORDON: So, clearly, there's been growth politically on the election side as well as the voting rights side, to some degree. Artur Davis, talk to me about what you believe will have to happen to make this go through.

Rep. DAVIS: Well, what I hope will happen is that people like Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood will understand exactly how all their constituents perceive their actions. This is the reality: voting in the South is still racially polarized. White people are often only inclined to cast votes for people of their race. And, unfortunately, black people are often inclined to only cast votes for people of their race.

We have a lot to do in this area. But we will do it only if we emphasize our common ground and we don't use this rhetoric about federal bureaucrats coming in and subjugating the South. We'll make progress only if we throw away this rhetoric about people coming in and instructing the South and treating us unfairly.

We are making progress, but there's one basic point: that progress rests not just on attitudes changing, but it rests on laws. We have integrated workforces today. That doesn't mean you walk away from Title 7. Americans, by the tune of 90 percent, say they consider voting for a woman for president. Doesn't mean you walk away from gender discrimination laws. And we need to keep this Voting Rights Act that has worked so well in place...

GORDON: All right.

Rep. DAVIS: ...instead of making it too complicated to administer and sending it into endless years of litigation.

GORDON: All right. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama and Congressman Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia. I thank you both.

Rep. DAVIS: Thank you.

Rep. WESTMORELAND: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, Milwaukee's schools want to sell the right to name classrooms, hallways, and gymnasiums, anything to raise money. And the president's anger. We'll have those topics and more on our Roundtable.

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