Hmm. So there's a debate in Congress from at least two Texas representatives on whether there is any "racial bias" or discrimination in Texas. Never mind our segregated schools or our racially/ethnically stratified occupational structures. Why was the voting rights act necessary in the first place? -Angela
June 22, 2006, 9:09AM
Criticism from Texas Republicans halts renewal of Voting Rights Act
The lawmakers decry pivotal law's extra oversight of states with history of discrimination
By SAMANTHA LEVINE
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The House abruptly dropped plans Wednesday to vote on a renewal of the Voting Rights Act, a seminal law from the civil rights era, after criticism from Republican lawmakers from Texas.
A bill to extend the law for 25 years has support from the White House, top legislative leaders of both parties and a key, GOP-controlled committee that passed it 33 to 1.
But the bill was delayed after objections from the Texas lawmakers to the requirement that the state must get permission, or "preclearance," from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to voting standards, practices or procedures.
The rule was aimed at states with a history of discrimination in voting. Six states were targeted when the law was originally passed in 1965: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. Texas, Arizona and Alaska were added in 1975, when the law was expanded to protect people who have limited knowledge of English.
"I don't think we have racial bias in Texas anymore," said Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.
"It would be dumb to discriminate," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio. "That is the last thing anyone is trying to do."
If Texas must still get pre-clearance, the lawmakers feel that all states should have to do the same. They were angered when House leaders declined Tuesday to allow a debate on an amendment to that effect, which was introduced by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler.
Some lawmakers are also seeking an amendment allowing the Justice Department to decide every year whether states need preclearance.
The lawmakers also pressed the leadership to delay renewing the law until the Supreme Court finishes its review of the disputed Texas congressional district lines that were drawn in 2003.
Democrats and some minority groups allege that the GOP-friendly lines violated the Voting Rights Act's prohibitions on discriminating against minority voters. The court could hand down its decision as early as today.
Several Texas Republicans also objected to the law's requirement that jurisdictions print ballots in other languages if 5 percent or more of their voting-age populations have limited English skills.
"I simply believe you should be able to read, write and speak English to be a voter in the United States," Carter said.
'Committed' to act
House Republican leaders said they "have time to address (lawmakers') concerns" and are "committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation as soon as possible."
The Senate has not voted on it yet.
House lawmakers are mistaken if they think bilingual aid is meant only to help immigrants, said Peter Zamora, a legislative attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The provisions were designed to help native-born, U.S. citizens who did not receive adequate schooling in English reading comprehension, he said. Zamora added that it is harder to understand a ballot than demonstrate the English-language proficiency required of naturalized citizens.
Congressional Democrats and civil rights leaders lashed out at the House delay.
"Those members who held up today's vote represent retrogressive forces that America hasn't seen at this level since the 1960s," said Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He noted that the bill was introduced by a large bipartisan group of lawmakers.
"It is shameful what they are doing," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill last month by the vote of 33-1.
She added that she opposes the idea of applying the preclearance rules to all 50 states. It would inevitably result in several states suing for relief from the provisions, she said, leaving the law to languish in the courts.
Effect on voters
The actions of Texas Republicans are unlikely to cause them problems at the polls, said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
"Republicans in Texas recognize that they get elected on Anglo votes, a few Hispanic votes, and almost no black votes," he said.