Henderson to Testify Today On Continued Need for Voting Rights Act, Will Push for Reauthorization of Expiring Provisions

Media 03.8.06

Washington – This afternoon, at 4 PM, Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition, will testify at the House Subcommittee on the Constitution’s hearing, “The Voting Rights Act: Evidence of Continued Need.”

Henderson will discuss the findings of 14 sharply focused state reports that have been commissioned by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF), through RenewtheVRA.org. The state-specific reports document the status of political participation for minorities in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, all covered by expiring VRA protections.

Henderson’s full written testimony is available at http://renewthevra.civilrights.org/resources/details.cfm?id=41157; his complete oral testimony is below:

Yesterday marked the 41st anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama that left 50 innocent marchers hospitalized after police used tear gas, whips and clubs to beat them. “Bloody Sunday” vaulted voting rights abuses into the political forefront and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act, including its temporary provisions, Section 5, Sections 6 through 9, and Section 203, has been the pivotal force behind the nation’s progress toward protecting the right to vote. It has empowered large numbers of minority citizens to register and vote, and to elect their candidates of choice to local, state and federal offices. The Act has been successful in removing direct and indirect barriers to voting for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans.

As part of the Leadership Conference’s role in assessing the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act and its continuing need, our sister organization, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund commissioned an educational and research collaborative – RenewtheVRA.org – to draft a series of reports requested by Congress to examine the impact of the Voting Rights Act over the past 25 years.

Beginning today and over the next month, RenewtheVRA.org will release reports on the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. These states were chosen as a representative sampling — geographically and demographically – of jurisdictions covered in whole or in part by the expiring temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act. I would ask that each of the reports previously submitted to the Committee, those that will be submitted, and my testimony in full be admitted as part of the record of these proceedings. Today, I will highlight the trends and findings of many of these reports.

Several consistent themes emerge in the state reports. Over the course of the last 25 years, the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been employed often and have worked well to limit practices harmful to the full participation of racial and ethnic minority voters. First, it is clear that the preclearance provision, the language minority protections, and the examiner and observer provisions of the Voting Rights Act have played significant roles in protecting the voting rights of minority citizens. These reports, however, also highlight a unifying theme: discrimination still pervades the electoral process. The state reports chronicle why the expiring temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act remains relevant and necessary to stop both intentional discrimination, and facially neutral proposals with potentially discriminatory effects.

The state reports are rich with data and compelling stories of how the Voting Rights Act has impacted minority voters and office holders. For example, Mississippi, the poorest state in the union, has a population that is 36% black, the highest of any of the 50 states. Despite bitter historical resistance to the civil rights movement, dramatic changes have occurred since 1965, thanks in large measure to the Voting Rights Act. Mississippi now has the highest number of black elected officials in the country, yet, racially polarized voting remains a pervasive problem.

The reports also highlight the recent history of discrimination in the 14 states, focusing on old and new methods of discrimination employed to abridge the voting rights of minority citizens. The reports examine current events that impact the right to vote and illuminate the nature of the political climate for minorities.

The Louisiana report indicates that apart from the extraordinary questions of voter disenfranchisement facing Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina , the Voting Rights Act has been instrumental in protecting the vote in that state. Since the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 1982, the Department of Justice has objected nearly 100 times to proposed changes that would have adversely impacted minority voters in Louisiana, particularly African-Americans. Sixty percent of DOJ’s total Section 5 objections in Louisiana since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act have come after 1982.

Additionally, the New York report reveals that in recent elections the New York Board of Elections failed to provide sufficient Chinese, Spanish, and Korean interpreters, ranging in deficiency from 25%-59%.

The South Dakota report underscores how societal attitudes and a hostile climate led to practices that undermined the full participation of Native American voters. These tactics include voter intimidation, investigations of newly registered voters, failure to provide polling places on reservations, discriminatory redistricting and failure to provide language assistance at the polls.

Despite progress made, barriers to full and equal minority voter participation remain. In the backdrop of many successes under the Voting Rights Act, a second generation of discrimination has emerged, more insidious than a half century ago, but no less discriminatory. The Voting Rights Act remains a relevant, necessary tool to curb voting rights abuses, and we must fully reauthorize the Act.