Black Caucus members reject GOP proposal to ease Voting Rights Act

Under Section 5, seven states and several counties in other states in the South are required to get federal clearance before they make any changes to their election laws. Under the law, Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia must pre-clear all changes to voting procedures with the U.S. attorney general. Some counties in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and North Carolina face the same requirement.

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The rule was originally designed to be a temporary way to ensure certain Southern states did not try to disenfranchise black voters. But it has since been extended several times — the last extension was in 2006, when it was extended through 2031.

But Broun said the law is outdated and unnecessary.

"This section of Federal statute treats some States more equal than other States," he said. "There are States being discriminated against. My home State of Georgia is one of those. It's time for us to go to what the Constitution says is the way we should all be treated: equal under the law."

Broun's proposal drew sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats, many of whom said a change the historic law should not be considered so quickly, as an amendment to an appropriations bill in a late-night debate.

Jackson said the Voting Rights Act, for the first time in history, required states to consider ways to give racial minorities their own districts, giving them a chance to elect a representative to Congress. He implied that it is still too early to trust some states to make election choices that are considerate of blacks and other minorities.

"Both Democrats and Republicans, through history … have used race as a partisan advantage in trying to draw congressional districts and legislative districts," he said. "I appeal to you, Mr. Chairman, to reject this amendment at midnight; reject this unconstitutional, unprecedented attack on the civil rights of every American."

Civil rights icon John Lewis was angered by Broun's proposal, prompting Broun to withdraw it.

"It's shameful that you would come here tonight and say to the Department of Justice that you must not use one penny, one cent, one dime, one dollar to carry out the mandate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act," Lewis said. "We should open up the political process and let all of our citizens come in and participate. People died for the right to vote — friends of mine, colleagues of mine — to speak out against this amendment. It doesn't have a place."

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) offered tepid support for Broun, saying that the United States "may be reaching a point" at which Section 5 requirements could be examined again. But Wolf said he was strongly against deciding such a complex issue with little debate and so late at night.

Jackson rejected the idea that the United States is ready to ease the Section 5 requirements.

"For me to stand here and listen to my distinguished colleague, the distinguished gentleman from Virginia, the chairman of the subcommittee, for him to argue that there may be a time and we may be approaching a time when the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance provision of Section 5 is no longer necessary, couldn't be further from the truth," he said.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said one problem he has with the law is that there is no way for jurisdictions to escape its requirement, even when they have shown they are not discriminating.

"There is no means by which a jurisdiction can come forward and show that over a decade, they have not, in fact, discriminated but have acted appropriately and, therefore, this tremendous Justice Department authority will be no more there," he said. But Lungren also agreed that the appropriations bill is not the place to have this debate.

At the end of the debate, Broun apologized to Lewis, his colleague from Georgia, for any offense he might have caused.

"I apologize to my dear friend from Georgia if he's gotten angry with this amendment," Broun said. "It was never my intent to do so. And I am going to ask unanimous consent to withdraw the amendment."