(1st Add: Includes details about Voting Rights Act)
(CNSNews.com) - The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus on Friday urged his Capitol Hill colleagues to extend and strengthen the Voting Rights Act in order to "level the playing field" because, U.S. Rep. Melvin Watt said, "white people ... will not consider voting for an African American candidate."
Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina, made the remarks at a Washington hearing held by the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act. The commission, a project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is conducting nationwide hearings to gather data on voter discrimination for a report it will issue supporting the extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Watt told Cybercast News Service that his views are based on a 1980s blind poll of North Carolinians, which he said revealed that 30 percent of whites would not vote for a black candidate under any circumstances.
Watt told the commission that if another poll were conducted today, "there would be a substantial majority of white voters who would say that under no circumstances would they vote for an African American candidate." He later amended his comments, allowing that "some of them would."
The number of white Americans who would refuse to vote for a minority candidate is "decreasing," Watt conceded, but he maintained that the Voting Rights Act should "adjust districts to take [racially motivated voting] into account."
Voters refusing to vote for a minority candidate "need to be factored out of the equation," according to Watt, because "I've got no use for them in the democratic process."
Watt admitted that some black voters only cast ballots for black candidates, but said in those cases, the voters are exercising "preference," which he said is different than "an absolute commitment" to cast a vote based on race.
"Black people have not had the luxury of being able to say, 'Under no circumstances will I vote for a white candidate,'" Watt said.
However, he also advocated a race-based solution to the problem he described. The solution -- expanding the Voting Rights Act to encourage minority candidate victories is "exactly the same thing" as citizens voting against a minority candidate, Watt said. "The only way to level the playing field is to take race into account on the other side."
While much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is permanent, several sections periodically come up for renewal in Congress. Three provisions will expire in August 2007 if Congress does not extend them.
Section 5 requires jurisdictions in 16 states to obtain U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) approval if they want to change voting methods. Sections 6-9 authorize the DOJ to send federal observers to those jurisdictions to deter and report voter discrimination. Section 203 requires counties with significant numbers of non-English-speaking residents to provide translation assistance at all stages of the voting process.
The last time the provisions were reauthorized was 1982, when President Ronald Reagan extended them for 25 years.
The commission hearing in Washington was the ninth of 10 aimed at gathering data that will create a "comprehensive report detailing discrimination in voting since 1982," according to the commission's website.
This report "will be used to educate the public, advocates and policymakers on this record of discrimination and its relationship to the upcoming reauthorization." The commission's final hearing is scheduled for Oct. 29 in Jackson, Miss.
The National Commission on the Voting Rights Act is co-sponsored by People for the American Way Foundation, the NAACP National Voter Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
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