Thursday, July 20, 2006

NAACP 'storms' Capitol Hill for Voting Rights Act

Bus caravan pushes Senate panel to vote for law's renewal

Leslie Fulbright
Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

The NAACP flexed its muscle Wednesday on Capitol Hill, persuading legislators in a matter of hours to act on renewing portions of the Voting Rights Act, a measure that had been stalled for months.

Motivated by fiery speeches from three Democratic allies, more than 1,000 NAACP delegates boarded buses Wednesday and headed to Capitol Hill to advocate for the preservation of three provisions of the voting act, as well as other civil rights legislation.

Just over two hours later, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the legislation for the act's renewal, and Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., joined NAACP President Bruce Gordon and Chairman Julian Bond to announce the Senate could take a full vote on the measure as early as today.

The sections of the 1965 act that ban literacy tests and other discriminatory practices are permanent. Set to expire next year are requirements that certain states and counties with a history of voter discrimination, primarily in the South, obtain federal approval for any changes in voting laws; that federal observers be present if there is evidence of voter intimidation; and that any county with a significant non-English speaking population provide bilingual ballots.

Introduced in May, the legislation was expected to pass quickly in both houses with bipartisan support. But conservative Republicans in some of the affected states raised objections, saying the act was no longer needed.

The House last week overwhelmingly passed legislation renewing the three provisions. "The House heard the NAACP was coming on Friday; on Thursday the House passed the VRA of 1965," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia delegate to the House.

Throughout its 97th national convention, themed "Voting our Values: Valuing our Vote," the NAACP has focused on pressuring the Senate and President Bush to support the provisions.

In a morning session, Gordon urged attendees, seated in sections according to their home states, to "storm" Capitol Hill.

"This is our day. We are going to the Hill today," the NAACP president said before boarding a bus. "They are going to know the NAACP is in the house."

And they did. After police escorted a long line of buses to the offices of Congress, attendees fanned out to visit the offices of their representatives. Tony Grimes, president of the NAACP chapter in Irving, Texas, met with a representative of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to talk about the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and the minimum wage. He said he didn't get any straight answers, so he planned to hang around and wait to speak to the senator in person.

"I've got plenty of time," he said.

California residents visited Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who supported the renewal, in her office, and then thanked House members who voted to renew the provisions last week.

Earlier in the day, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., appeared on an NAACP panel and expressed support for the legislation. But they all cautioned that the work does not stop with its passage.

"We need a Justice Department that takes seriously its enforcement responsibility," Clinton said. "There are a lot of violations going on, discrimination and intimidation."

Kennedy, called a staunch ally by NAACP leaders and an original supporter of the act, told the crowd not to elect judges who are hostile to civil rights.

Obama, the only African American member of the Senate, agreed.

"Ultimately, laws are only as good as the people who are enforcing them," he said. "The Voting Rights Act is a critical tool, but it is not the only tool that needs to be deployed. There are a lot of tricks out there. We have electronic voting machines that don't have paper trails."

Obama said he introduced the "Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act" last year because of misconduct in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election.

"You had political operatives calling folks and saying the vote was on Wednesday instead of Tuesday," or that they couldn't vote because of parking tickets or an old felony, he said.

"They've got to be prosecuted. They've got to go to jail. Right now people think they can get away with some of these blatant strategies to suppress the vote."

Bush is scheduled to speak to the national convention today for the first time in his six years in office. In doing so, he would avoid becoming the first president since Warren Harding, who died while in office in 1923, to refuse to speak to the nation's oldest civil rights group.

In a speech at the beginning of the day, the Rev. Jesse Jackson asked NAACP members to raise their hands if they supported same-sex marriage, decent housing, a protected vote, refugees returning to New Orleans, leaving Iraq and funding for AIDS research.

There was a roar of approval for each.

"Well, this is not his crowd," Jackson said, referring to Bush.

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