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Steele says extending voting laws is critical


WASHINGTON -- Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele told a House subcommittee yesterday that key provisions of the Voting Rights Act should "absolutely" be extended in order to continue the progress made over the past 40 years in ensuring the right to vote for all citizens.

"It's as relevant today as it was in 1965, and, I would say, more so," Steele said, referencing the year in which the landmark law, credited with knocking down many discriminatory barriers to the ballot box, was enacted.

Steele - a Republican who was the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland - is expected to announce his candidacy Tuesday for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring.

Steele's remarks appeared to reflect the balance he intends to strike during his campaign, as he tries to attract the support of black voters while promoting his service in the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Several Democrats are vying for their party's nomination, including Kweisi Mfume, a former Baltimore congressman who also headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Key portions of the voting rights law are set to expire at the end of 2007, and Congress is considering whether to change the law in the process of renewing it.

They include a provision that requires federal approval for any changes in voting rules in areas with a history of discriminatory practices, and another that requires state and local governments to provide language assistance if there are enough voters with limited proficiency in English. In Maryland, that rule compels Montgomery County to provide Spanish-language ballots.

Advocacy groups, including the NAACP, have called for the provisions to be renewed, and possibly expanded. Some others, mainly conservative Republicans, contend that federal oversight is an unfair burden and want Congress to narrow the law.

At yesterday's hearing, Steele said that failing to renew parts of the law would be to "walk away and leave important work unfinished."

But he also said he thinks there should be a debate over how to prevent voter fraud by requiring voters to prove their identity and eligibility to cast a ballot - a controversial idea that has drawn opposition from civil rights groups.

Most Democrats see it as an effort to restrict voting among minorities and the poor, while Republicans say it is a way to increase the fairness of elections.

In Georgia this week, a federal judge blocked enforcement of a new law that requires voters to show photo identification. That law, wrote U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy, "is most likely to prevent Georgia's elderly, poor and African-American voters from voting."

Steele noted controversies over the past several years in Maryland and elsewhere as evidence that the system needs "checks and balances."

After the hearing, he said it is the state's responsibility to make sure that any new requirements don't put an unfair burden on the voter. For example, he said, if a voter doesn't have a driver's license, the state could consider putting a photo or a Social Security number on that person's voter registration card.

"I think that's the debate we need to have," Steele said.

Steele appeared before the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution at the invitation of its chairman, Republican Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio. Steele said he thought Chabot asked him to testify because of his experience as a member of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, a private, foundation-supported panel formed after the 2000 presidential election.

The Maryland Democratic Party attacked Steele's testimony. In a prepared statement, the Democrats called him a "hypocrite" because Ehrlich had vetoed several voting-related bills this year that Democrats said would have made voting easier and more secure. Republicans said the bills would have opened the door to fraud.

Ehrlich's vetoes were questioned during the hearing by Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, but Steele was not given a chance to comment. Afterward, the lieutenant governor said he couldn't give his personal views on Ehrlich's actions without reviewing the governor's reasons for vetoing the bills.

Steele testified on a panel with Jose Garza, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic advocacy group; Armand Derfner, a lawyer who specializes in voting rights cases; and J. Gerald Hebert, a former civil rights official at the Justice Department.

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