Parties Strategize on Renewing Voting Rights Act

Posted July 29, 2005 at 6:18pm

Several leading Democrats gathered at the Library of Congress Tuesday to make clear that they will keep the heat on the Republican majority to fully reauthorize the portions of the Voting Rights Act that are set to expire in 2007.

“I think it’s important early on that we rattle our sabers and insist on a robust, complete re-authorization,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told Roll Call following a briefing sponsored by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

It is unclear, however, whether Democrats will have much of a fight on their hands, given that GOP leaders — much to the dismay of some conservative thinkers — have signaled that they are committed to extending the landmark legislation.

Three key parts of the VRA will expire in 2007 if not reauthorized by Congress.

One provision, known as Section 5, requires certain states and precincts to get the Justice Department or the federal District Court in Washington to give “pre-clearance” to changes in voting time, place or manner. Another requires localities that have large populations of non-English speakers to provide ballots and instructions in other languages. And a third authorizes the federal government to dispatch federal election examiners to discourage intimidation.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who sparred with then-Attorney Gen. William French Smith in 1982 when the Voting Rights Act was last reauthorized, sees broader GOP support this time. Kennedy, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to introduce a bipartisan reauthorization bill with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the panel’s chairman, after Labor Day.

Jeff Lungren, the majority spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, said reauthorization of the VRA is “something we’re working on right now and something that we will continue working on in the fall.”

But he declined to provide more specifics on timing, other than to cite a July 10 promise by House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) to the NAACP that “we are going to extend the Voting Rights Act” during “this Congress.”

Edward Blum of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity views portions of the VRA as harmful to the body politic.

But based on his visits to the Congressional offices of two dozen GOP members of the House and Senate Judiciary panels, Blum expects that only a “shamefully small number” of Republicans will support his position.

Blum supports the permanent provisions of the law that guarantee basic 15th Amendment rights. But he and other critics object to Section 5 because they view it as responsible for creating racially homogeneous and noncompetitive districts that make biracial and bipartisan electoral coalitions unnecessary.

Republican Members and their staffs have told Blum that they agree with the logic of his legal and philosophical arguments. But his interpretation of those discussions is that they are not supporting him due to political considerations.

They want the risk of VRA-related fallout “gone,” Blum said, referring to Republican Members of Congress. “They want it behind them. They don’t want to face it in November of 2006.”

The GOP wants the issue to go away, according to Blum, because it has “all the makings of the ideal demagogic issue,” and because Republicans “went to the bank” during the 1990s on enforcement of Section 5 of the VRA. The creation of “max black” and “max Hispanic” districts led to more minorities being elected to Congress. But it also “bleached” the surrounding districts of reliable Democratic voters. As a result, those districts previously held by Democrats who flipped to the Republican Party.

As a way of illustrating the political calculus the GOP is making, Blum said Republicans are “very concerned” that if Section 5 ends, the black population in Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s (D-Texas) Houston district could be reduced in such a way that she would probably still be re-elected but the “extra African-Americans” could be used to undermine the Republican character of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) neighboring district.

“You repeat that in the South and in the covered jurisdictions and the Republican majority is in jeopardy,” Blum said, referring to the calculus that GOP members are making.

Blum, who describes himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” said he considers the GOP’s political calculus to be bad for the country and harmful to the long-term interests of the Republican Party.

Most organizations for racial and ethnic minorities continue to support the VRA.

With substantive details not yet available beyond Sensenbrenner’s vow that the VRA “must continue to exist” and that it must “exist in its current form,” the NAACP’s chief concern is that Congress not place Section 5 of the Act in legal jeopardy by extending it permanently.

While Democrats and their allies want to see Section 5 reauthorized, they don’t want to see it reauthorized permanently — and they’re staking out that position preemptively. While making Section 5 permanent may seem attractive, doing so would make it vulnerable to court challenge, said Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP’s legal defense fund.

In order for Section 5 to withstand strict scrutiny by the courts, it must be narrowly tailored to address the harms it is designed to cure. Shaw questioned whether the courts would find a permanent Section 5 — rather than one periodically revisited by Congress — to be narrowly tailored.

“Even though it may be confusing, we oppose permanent extension of the Voting Rights Act because it’s a Trojan Horse,” Shaw said.

Shaw identified Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), both of whom are considering White House bids in 2008, as Members who have mentioned that they are interested in permanent extension.

Amy Call, a Frist spokeswoman, said that not everyone agrees with Shaw’s assessment of the impact of making Section 5 permanent, pointing to testimony that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings.

She did not yet know, however, where Frist would come down on the issue.

Allen, after discussing the issue with Lewis, has come to support the NAACP’s view.

“Making the Voting Rights Act permanent would make this historic and vital law vulnerable to a court challenge,” said Allen spokesman David Snepp.

Democrats also oppose making Section 5 apply nationwide, believing that such an expansion would be difficult to administer and vulnerable to constitutional attack.

Conservatives like Blum and Abigail Thernstrom, the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, think it is unfair and unconstitutional that Section 5 covers Texas but not Arkansas; Virginia but not Tennessee; Arizona but not New Mexico; Manhattan but not Staten Island.

At the Library of Congress event, Menendez, the highest-ranking Latino in Congressional history, indicated that he plans to go to the mat to safeguard the VRA’s protections for the “linguistically challenged.”

“We don’t ask if they have a language limitation when we send them off to war,” Menendez said.

Conservatives like Blum think citizenship requires a basic working knowledge of the English language. It is unclear, however, how many Republicans will support getting rid of bilingual ballots at a time when the GOP is trying to make inroads among Latinos.

With Republican Congressional leaders embracing reauthorization of the VRA as part of broader efforts to reach out to minority groups, some scholars expect the legal and political battle to center around whether voters should be required to present government-issued photo ID cards to receive ballots.

“The states in which the identity cards are being required are states where Republicans control state governments,” said Bert Rockman, a Perdue University political scientist. “It’s not in the interests of the Democratic Party. They know their constituencies will be adversely affected.”