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Thursday, June 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Renewal of Voting Rights Act stalls

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — House leaders abruptly canceled a vote to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act Wednesday after rank-and-file Republicans revolted over provisions that require bilingual ballots in many places and continued federal oversight of voting practices in Southern states.

The intensity of the complaints, raised in a closed meeting of GOP lawmakers, surprised Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and his lieutenants, who thought the path was clear to renew the act's key provisions for 25 years. The act is widely considered a civil-rights landmark that helped thousands of black voters gain access to voting.

But many Southerners think the law has achieved its purpose and become more nuisance than necessity in several respects. They have aired those arguments for years, but Wednesday they got a boost from Republicans around the country who raised concerns over bilingual ballots.

Hastert's office said the Republican leadership "is committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation as soon as possible." Several House members, acknowledging that the GOP leadership had been caught flat-footed by the intraparty ruckus, said it was unclear whether the issue would be revisited before the weeklong Independence Day recess.

Nearly 80 House Republicans signed a letter by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, objecting to the Voting Rights Act's provisions that require state and local governments to print ballots in foreign languages — or provide interpreters — in precincts showing a need for such services.

The requirement is a costly unfunded mandate for many counties and municipalities, the letter said, adding, "The multilingual ballot mandate encourages the linguistic division of our nation and contradicts the 'Melting Pot' ideal that has made us the most successful multi-ethnic nation on Earth."

The Voting Rights Act also requires Justice Department preapproval of changes in voting practices in states that used techniques such as poll taxes or literacy tests to discourage blacks from voting in the 1960s. Some Republicans in Georgia, Texas and other Southern states say that such efforts to disenfranchise minorities disappeared long ago, and that continued coverage by the act is an unfair stigma.

Georgia has nine statewide elected black officials and other proof of ample minority participation in electoral politics, said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "If you move a polling place from the Baptist church to the Methodist church, you've got to go through the Justice Department," he said.

But Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said a bipartisan commission found evidence of recent voting-rights violations in Georgia, Texas and several other states. "These are not states that can say their hands are clean," she said.

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