WASHINGTON – Key provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act (search) must be renewed, said a former Republican senator heading a panel created to document the need for the measures.
Sen. Charles Mathias Jr. of Maryland, the honorary chairman of a nonpartisan commission investigating voting rights abuses nationwide, said the Voting Rights Act in 1965 changed the status of black voters in American society.
"The Voting Rights Act was really the whole core of the civil rights movement. It made a tremendous improvement," Mathias said. "There was a new recognition of black citizenship."
The National Commission on the Voting Rights Act, an eight-member panel backed by the nonprofit Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has been gathering testimony on discrimination against minority voters and held its first of 10 hearings in Montgomery, Ala., in March.
Its hearing Friday investigated voting rights abuses in the Washington Capital area. The next and final hearing is scheduled for Jackson, Miss., on Oct. 29.
Mathias, 83, played an active role when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson (search) in 1965, and during each of its subsequent amendments and revisions in 1970, 1975 and 1982. He served four terms in Congress and three in the Senate from 1961 to 1987.
The first bill to ban segregation was written by Mathias and two congressmen from New York and Ohio after President Kennedy failed to make good on a promise that his administration's first bill would cover civil rights, Mathias said.
Although it didn't become law, Mathias said he believes their bill encouraged passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (search).
"His civil rights record was second to none," said Michael Klipper, a former Mathias staffer and a lawyer with Meyer, Klipper & Mohr, a Washington law firm. "This has probably been his primary issue."
Born and raised in Frederick, Md., then a small town, Mathias grew up keenly aware of the "really dreadful" racial situation in Maryland and across the country, he said.
His unease led him to desegregate a movie theatre during his tenure as city attorney in Frederick, he said.
"We desegregated that opera house and made it possible for people to sit anywhere," Mathias said, proudly.
Assuring the Voting Rights Act remains intact is important, Mathias said. Each time it's come up for revision, the same arguments "in one form or another" have been made against it, he said.
"I think that's why we're having these hearings to establish the record that there is a need (to renew these provisions)," Mathias said. "I think the record will speak for itself."
That record is becoming clearer in the hearings, said Commissioner Chandler Davidson, a Rice University sociology professor.
"Pretty much across the board, we have heard from people who feel there is still a great deal of polarization in the voting process," said Davidson, who will compile the panel's findings in a report due January 2006.
The first provision in question of the Voting Rights Act is the so-called "pre-clearance" rule that singles out states, counties and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get federal approval before they make any changes to their voting laws.
"That has rankled with many of the people in the covered states since the beginning," Davidson said. Maryland is not covered by this rule.
Also up for renewal is a minority language provision requiring a state or jurisdiction containing at least 10,000 people or 5 percent of its total population with limited English proficiency to provide voting assistance in their language. In Maryland, Montgomery County is the only area that has triggered this requirement for its Spanish speakers.
Another set of provisions allows the Department of Justice to send observers to polling places in certain historically discriminatory jurisdictions.
"There's still a need for these provisions. I think the testimony supports that," said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, deputy director of the commission and voting rights staff attorney for the Lawyers' Committee.
Minority voters, including African-Americans, Native-Americans and Latinos, "all talk about how the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been instrumental in helping them vote," Johnson-Blanco said.
Although the commission will present its findings without a recommendation for renewal of the act, Mathias felt no such hesitation in expressing his views. Not renewing the Voting Rights provisions would be a mistake, he said.
"It is a letdown in the push for civil rights."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.