Today Republican leaders in the House of Representatives delayed voting on the Voting Rights Act (VRA), casting doubt on whether the landmark civil rights legislation would be renewed this year and before the looming 2007 deadline. Despite the bipartisan support for the VRA, the Republicans held a caucus meeting this morning and subsequently delayed the vote on the legislation. Their key concern? Section 5 of the VRA requires jurisdictions with a history of suppressing minority voter participation to obtain Justice Department approval of any election changes. Several GOP Representatives stated that the act unfairly targeted Southern states by requiring nine to obtain pre-clearance before changing voting laws:
The amendment's backers say the requirement unfairly singles out and holds accountable nine states that practiced racist voting policies decades ago, based on 1964 voter turnout data: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. - Associated Press
However, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution already investigated these areas and determined that discrimination could potentially occur based on their histories - and we need not dig back to 1964 to find justification for maintaining the VRA. Moreover, FairVote"s own experience with electoral systems design indicates that a great many American elections are currently conducted under winner-take-all systems that pose obstacles to fair representation, whether intentional or not. Moreover, in response to the question of whether nine states are being unfairly singled out --most states are affected by some section of the VRA; whether by the language provisions, oversight of jurisdictions, or the allowance of the federal government to monitor elections. If "fairness"� is the issue then, perhaps the answer in theory is not to mandate approval of elections changes for 9 states, but for all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) instead.
Incidentally, some representatives, headed by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), insist that the amendment singles out Southern states and should be extended to all or no states. But this is of course a solution in theory only, as such a clause would trigger a constitutional challenge given the narrow tailoring required when using racial classifications in legislation. A sweeping 50-state expansion of Section 5 would certainly beg such a challenge.
So trojan horse arguments aside, the Voting Rights Act should be renewed to ensure equal voting rights for all citizens. While it is true that the United States has come far with anti-discrimination policies, it is important to maintain this progress. Renewing the Voting Rights Act as it stands will ensure this maintenance and encourage states to continue making progress in civil rights - but the movement must continue beyond the VRA to embrace a right to vote constitutional amendment, proportional voting systems, and other key areas to create the real goal - elections where every vote is meaningful and counted equally.
Abbie is a FairVote intern and a senior undergraduate English and Classics major at Truman State University. She is the author of Chick in the Czech, a daily blog which, in the Czech Republic, is as popular as Baywatch.