U.S. Congress urged to preserve voting protections for minorities

Leading civil rights groups in the United States are urging legislators not to make any retrogressive changes in the law that protects minorities' right to vote and prohibits discriminatory practices in the electoral process.

Their call comes amid a series of hearings being held by the U.S. Congress this week on the future of the historic Voting Rights Act that is due to expire a year before the next presidential election takes place in 2008.

Codified by legislators following nationwide demonstrations organized by the country's civil rights movement and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the law has enabled millions of Blacks and other minorities to exercise their right to vote.

"Re-authorization of this Act is critical," says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights (LCCR). "In making our democracy work, it is important that we do every thing we can to ensure that every citizen's right to vote is protected."

Although the United States Constitution guarantees people of all races the right to vote, minorities can lose protections against discrimination if the Voting Right Act is not fully re-enacted by Congress, rights groups say.

Provisions of the 1965 law that forbid literacy tests and other obstacles for minorities will remain in tact beyond 2007, but others will expire if Congress does not take any action.

Currently, one of such provisions requires states with a history of racial discrimination--mostly in the South--to get federal approval before changing their election laws. Another mandates official assistance for voters who do not speak English.

Rights groups say there are not clear indications of Congressional intentions to introduce retrogressive changes in the voting rights law, but they find some recent moves by the courts and the Bush administration worrisome.

Recently, the Supreme Court and U.S. Justice Department have interpreted certain aspects of the 1965 Law in a way that many civil rights lawyers believe undermines the original intent of its authors.

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