Voting Rights Reauthorization and the League of Women Voters

In 2006, Congress will consider the reauthorization of the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The League of Women Voters has a long history of support for the Voting Rights Act.  The League lobbied extensively for the 1970 amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1975, we were part of a successful coalition effort to extend the Act and expand its coverage to language minorities, and in 1982 the League was a leader in the fight to strengthen the Act and extend its major provisions for 25 years.  In 2007, these provisions will expire. The League of Women Voters believes that the Voting Rights Act should be reauthorized and not weakened in any way by amendments.

Since our founding in 1920, protecting and promoting the right of every citizen to vote has been a guiding principle of the League of Women Voters.  Widely viewed as one of the most successful civil rights laws, the Voting Rights Act has institutionalized that principle by outlawing the discriminatory practices in elections and protecting the rights of minority voters.  Americans are proud of the Voting Rights Act and rely on it to protect the essential expression of our democracy, the citizen’s right to vote. 
Due to the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act instances of voter intimidation and discrimination have decreased, but unfortunately some voters still confront barriers when exercising their right to vote.  These include attempts to dilute the strength of minority voters in unfair redistricting, election officials harassing minority voters, or insufficient numbers of bilingual ballots for citizens who are limited English proficient – the contemporary equivalent of the last century’s literacy test.  We must reauthorize Sections 5 and 203 to continue to provide a strong deterrent and the necessary oversight of persistent voting rights violations. 

Key Provisions of the Voting Rights Act Scheduled to Expire in August 2007
Section 5 is known as the pre-clearance provision and requires certain jurisdictions to obtain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in D.C. before they can put into effect any changes to voting practices or procedures.  Under the statute, federal approval requires proof that the proposed change does “not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color [or membership in a language minority group].” 

Section 203 requires bilingual language assistance to voters in communities where there is a concentration of citizens who are limited English proficient. The purpose of Section 203 is to provide citizens who are limited English proficient with the same opportunities to participate in the voting process as the general public.  Language barriers effectively prevent eligible voters from voting since the inability to speak English very well results in low voter participation. This provision was added to the VRA in 1975.

Sections 6 through 9 are the observer provisions which 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.   Although these provisions are permanent, the primary way these provisions are utilized is through the Section 5 pre-clearance coverage formula, which is set to expire in August 2007.