Chat with US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) on Voting Rights Act Renewal


“I’m shocked, I’m surprised, and I’m also very saddened, to relive some of these issues over again, using some of the same language that was used in the 1950s and 1960s,” US Rep. John Lewis told Atlanta Progressive News in a phone interview.

“I think the Voting Rights Act was good and necessary in 1965 and it is still good and necessary in 2006,” Rep. Lewis said.

Congressman Lewis’s comments are in response to the fact that two Georgia Republican Congressmen delayed a US House vote on reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act just two days ago, on June 27, 2006.

HR 9, sponsored by Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI), has 152 cosponsors and was introduced May 02, 2006. It is officially called “The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act.”

On May 10, 2006, HR 9 passed the House Judiciary Committee on a vote of 33-1. The one vote against was from Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. Lewis said, adding King’s opposition had been over the issue of language protections for voters who speak languages other than English. Rep. King would like to ship all illegal immigrants out of the US in buses, Rep. Lewis said; the Voting Rights Act does not apply to illegal immigrants, only to US citizens, however.

On June 20, 2006, H Res 878, sponsored by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), from the House Rules Committee, called for HR 9 to be considered by the entire House floor.

However, H Res 878, and thus HR 9, have been held up by H Res 890, an unrelated appropriations bill which included language tabling HR 878. HR 9 has been tabled while two amendments to HR 9 are being considered, Rep. Lewis said. This tabling occurred June 27, 2006.

“I have friends who were beaten and killed as part of the Mississippi Summer project. There are members of Congress [today] who are very young, who don’t understand their history, who don’t understand their legacy. Brave men put themselves on the line. There was a coalition in Congress [and also the support of] President Johnson,” Lewis said.

The Voting Rights Act will be renewed–and that’s including the crucial sections such as Section 5 requiring Department of Justice (USDOJ) scrutiny of any changes to nine Southern states’ voting processes–Congressman Lewis predicts.

The nine states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Specific areas in several other states are also covered.

“If the Speaker brings it back after July 4th, we’ll have the votes in Congress to defeat these amendments by Norwood and Westmoreland,” Lewis said.

“I do believe there is a deliberate, systematic attempt to deny certain groups in our population access to the ballot, to limit the participation of more people in the political process,” Rep. Lewis said.

Democrats and Republicans have been working for months on crafting legislation to renew the historic Voting Rights Act.

This process has included research and testimony documenting the continuing need for USDOJ scrutiny in the same states as 41 years ago, Rep. Lewis’s spokesperson , Brenda Jones, said.

However, two Republican US Congressmen from Georgia just introduced amendments inconsistent with the bipartisan compromise, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

The bipartisan support for renewing the VRA was unique for this Congress, Rep. Lewis’s spokesperson told Atlanta Progressive News. It’s not the most ideal legislation ever, but it’s a good compromise, she said.

Also, it is important that the crucial provisions of the Act be renewed this session because Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI) has been supportive and it is not certain whether the next Congress’s Judiciary Committee Chairman will be as well, Rep. Lewis’s spokesperson explained. Sensenbrenner will be subject to chairmanship term limits. If Democrats win the House, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), however, would take over the committee.

The Voting Rights Act, which needs to be renewed by next August before key provisions will expire, was an opportunity created by the Civil Rights Movement; it was not inevitable, but it was demanded by activists, historical scholars have said.

“The Voting Rights Act is the heart and soul of our Democracy. The Voting Rights Act literally ushered in the possibility of transforming electoral politics. In the American South, you had millions who could not vote because of the color of their skin,” Lewis said.

Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-GA) wants to extend the Voting Rights Act Section 5 to cover all 50 US states and not just the 9 currently covered.

The basis for determining which states, counties, cities, or other areas require USDOJ scrutiny would be updated from the 1964, 1968, and 1972 elections, to the most recent three US Presidential elections, and this would continuously roll forward in the future, according to a statement on Congressman Norwood’s website.

A state would have to exhibit a recent pattern of discrimination or voter turnout under 50% to be subjected to USDOJ scrutiny, Norwood’s statement said.

The problem is, by subjecting all 50 states to the possibility of USDOJ scrutiny under Section 5, the VRA reauthorization as proposed by Rep. Norwood would likely be declared unconstitutional, Rep. Lewis said.

The bill passed a constitutional challenge decades ago because it was found to be narrowly crafted to target a specific problem.

USDOJ review is a good mechanism for fighting discrimination against minority voters because court challenges–the usual remedy–can take years to be resolved, long after questionable elections have occurred, Rep. Lewis’s spokesperson explained.

“That is an argument that came out in 1963, 1964, and 1965. If it’s good enough for the Southern States, then it’s good enough for all 50 states. But all 50 states don’t have a problem. In New York, it might be a certain county,” but the greatest trends of discrimination persist in the US South, Rep. Lewis said.

“Why create a solution [in the other states] when there’s not a problem?” Rep. Lewis said.

Areas which show more recent problems can still be added to the list of areas to be scrutinized by the USDOJ, and areas which appear to have addressed their historical problems can still be removed, Rep. Lewis’s spokesperson said.

Reps. Norwood and Westmoreland argued the Southern states are being unfairly discriminated against even though they have made some strides to address discrimination against minorities.

“I differ from that argument. Some people have used that… [that] we’ve come a distance. All that may be true. But the sad fact is Georgia, more than any other state, could be looked at as a poster child for the Voting Rights Act,” Rep. Lewis told Atlanta Progressive News.

“There’s a long, rich history of gerrymandering, redistricting mid-census, done primarily for political reasons, to dilute power or influence of African Americans’ votes in several Congressional districts,” Rep. Lewis said.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland offered a similar amendment to the one offered by Rep. Norwood.

In recent months, we have seen reports in the Washington Post that the career staffers of the USDOJ have had their recommendations regarding Voter ID in Georgia and redistricting in Texas overridden by political appointees of the Bush administration.

So, why is it important to renew the VRA, to reauthorize a process that’s not being properly implemented?

“You have to keep in mind this Department of Justice and administration will not be around forever. You have the career people. This administration will override the career people [but…] in the years to come, people will be fairminded by the letter and the spirit of the law,” Rep. Lewis said.

Last night, the US House defeated an amendment which would have stripped the VRA of requiring funds for the USDOJ to ensure multilingual ballots and multilingual elections assistance, Rep. Lewis told Atlanta Progressive News.

“I call that a modern day literacy test,” Rep. Lewis said, adding it was voted down by all Democrats plus 61 Republicans.

Yet, “we see these ballot referendums with double negatives and college professors can’t understand them,” Rep. Lewis said.

Rep. King of Iowa had wanted to offer a similar amendment to HR 9, but debate was limited to the Westmoreland and Norwood amendments according to H Res 890. This limitation caused some Republicans to be upset, according to some media reports.

However, Rep. Stearns (R-FL) had forced debate on the language issue by attaching it to an appropriations bill.

Rep. Lewis said that Westmoreland and Norwood’s amendments have not come to a full US House vote because a majority of Republicans did not show up for a Caucus meeting to discuss the issues beforehand.

A lot of the current debate regarding the VRA actually has to do with immigration, Rep. Lewis noted.

“There’s an attempt to turn to the question of immigration, but no one is saying that. We [lawmakers] get concerned about the infusion of thousands of voters coming into a Congressional district,” Rep. Lewis said.

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor and a National Correspondent for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at

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