- Unfair tactics and confusing rules still make it tough for many minorities to cast election ballots, and the barriers are so common that the federal safeguards for voters must be renewed, a detailed new report from a civil rights group says.
"Protecting Minority Voters: The Voting Rights Act, 1982-2005" pulls together research and testimony from voters around the country to urge lawmakers to renew the parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that will expire in August 2007.
"The past and the present look a whole lot alike in the prevalence of racial discrimination in voting," said Barbara Arnwine, director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which spearheaded the project. "It was shocking to ... not only see the continuing reality of racial discrimination in voting but to see how pervasive these problems are nationwide."
The report will be put into the congressional record to be used during debate over reauthorization. President Bush has said he would urge Congress to renew the act.
The 125-page report was to be released at a Wahington, D.C. news conference on Tuesday. Among its findings:
Polling places and voting hours in minority neighborhoods are routinely changed shortly before elections.
Election officials were found to have illegally purged voter lists and refused to translate election materials for citizens who are not fluent in English.
Voters and advocates complained to federal officials about unfair election practices more often between 1982 and 2004 than between 1965 and 1982, data compiled from Department of Justice records show.
"You would expect a drop every year in the level of discrimination, but the facts show there was no drop after '82," said Bill Lann Lee, chair of the National Committee on the Voting Rights Act, a group created by the Lawyers' Committee to work on the report. "Extending the act in '82 was a good idea, this shows. And there's still a need."
The ranks of minority elected officials have grown dramatically, the report says, mostly because the act has protected majority-minority voting districts. In 1970, there were 1,469 black elected officials in the country, a number that grew to more than 9,000 by 2004. There are about 5,200 Latino elected officials and 350 Asian- American elected officials today.
Critics say this is precisely why the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed.
"There are essentially
hundreds, if not thousands, more officials in the black belt where Jim Crow had
its heyday," said Ralph Conner of the Heartland Institute in
Congress first passed the law in
August 1965, months after black protesters trying to secure voting rights in
Key sections set to expire give federal officials unusual authority to oversee elections in states that have historically had problems with racial bias. They can send in election monitors, force states to translate voting materials or require states to get Department of Justice approval before changing election procedures.
To justify these "extraordinary remedies," Lee said, Congress ordered that provisions be routinely re-examined to confirm that they're still necessary. The last reauthorization was in 1982.
Although barriers to minority voters are more subtle today, the report says, they are not gone and they are no longer concentrated in the South.
"This is kind of the untold story, the story doesn't grab national headlines," Lee said. "But if you look at what's happening in community after community, you see that when the numbers in minority communities reach a certain point and when they start to be interested in voting and politics, there's often resistance and that resistance takes forms that violate the law."
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