WASHINGTON – The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which opened voting booths to millions of black Americans, won a 25-year extension from Congress on Thursday as Republicans sought to improve their standing with minorities before the fall election.
The legislation, approved 98-0 by the Senate after last week’s overwhelming House passage, now goes to President Bush, who told the NAACP earlier in the day that he looked forward to signing it.
“The Voting Rights Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation in our nation’s history,” Bush said in a statement. “It has been vital to guaranteeing the right to vote for generations of Americans and has helped millions of our citizens enjoy the full promise of freedom.”
“The Voting Rights Act has worked. It has achieved its intended purpose,” said Majority Leader Bill Frist, who timed the Senate’s debate to occur while Bush made his first-ever address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The House passed the bill last week 390-33 with opposition mostly from Southern lawmakers who objected to renewing a law that requires their states win Justice Department approval before changing any voting rules – punishment, they said, for racist practices decades in the past.
Some also objected to provisions that require jurisdictions with large populations of non-English-speaking citizens to print ballots in languages other than English.
Several Southern senators echoed the concerns of their House counterparts, but there were few obstacles to passage in that chamber.
“Is this the very best that we can do at this time? Yes, it is,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The nine states required to win Justice Department approval for any voting practice changes are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia
Others senators showered the law with praise for its successes. The act was still necessary, proponents said, pointing to congressional hearings that showed certain districts still make it harder for minorities and citizens with limited understanding of English to be informed when they cast ballots.
The effect of the law “has been profound, to put it mildly,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., whose panel a day earlier approved the renewal, 18-0.
“It will not remove all discrimination by any means,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “But it is a major step to let everybody in the country know that all of us – all of us – are equal as Americans with equal rights, no matter the color of our skin.”
Two senators did not vote: Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
The legislation would renew several provisions of the law set to expire next year.
They include one requiring jurisdictions with large populations of voters who do not speak English to print ballots in several languages and provide other assistance.
Some lawmakers had complained that the policy discourages people from learning English.
But House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said that most people who need the assistance were born here and deserve the help.