WASHINGTON – The House voted Thursday to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rejecting efforts by Southern conservatives to relax federal oversight of their states in a debate haunted by the ghosts of the civil rights movement.
The 390-33 vote sent to the Senate a bill that represented a Republican appeal to minority voters who doubt the GOP’s “big-tent” image. Southern conservatives had complained that the act punishes their states for racist voting histories they say they’ve overcome.
“By passing this rewrite of the Voting Rights Act, Congress is declaring from on high that states with voting problems 40 years ago can simply never be forgiven,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., one of several lawmakers pressing for changes to the law to ease its requirements on Southern states.
The House overwhelmingly rejected amendments that would have shortened the renewal from 25 years to a decade and would have struck its requirement that ballots in some states be printed in several languages.
Supporters of the law as written used stark images and emotional language to make clear that the pain of racial struggle still stings.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., displayed photos of civil rights activists, including himself, who were beaten by Alabama state troopers in 1965 as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights.
“Yes, we’ve made some progress; we have come a distance,” Lewis added. “The sad truth is, discrimination still exists. That’s why we still need the Voting Rights Act and we must not go back to the dark past.”
The very debate over changes to the act is testament to the influence of Southern conservatives, even over their own GOP leaders who had hoped to pass the renewal as a fresh appeal for support from minorities on Election Day.
With rare bipartisan support among leaders of the House and Senate, the renewal was widely expected to sail through Congress. Republican leaders, however, were forced to cancel a House vote last month when conservatives rebelled during a closed meeting against provisions they contended singled out Southern states for federal oversight despite the civil rights progress in recent years.
Unable to satisfy the dissenters and eager to pass the bill this week, Republican leaders announced late Wednesday they would allow the House to consider amendments, none of which passed.