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US Civil Rights Leaders Urge Better Protection of Voter Rights

A group of civil rights leaders is urging the U.S. government to do more to protect the rights of minority voters in the United States. In testimony at a congressional hearing that marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, they argued the Bush administration has not done enough to enforce civil rights laws that protect disadvantaged voters. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957, enacted during President Dwight Eisenhower's administration, was the first civil rights law passed since the end of the civil war in the 1860s. The law established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote.

But civil rights leaders told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department under the Bush administration has not made the protection of the rights of minority voters a priority.

Congressman John Lewis is a Georgia Democrat who played a key role in America's civil rights movement in the 1960s.

"The public has lost confidence in our government, and in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division," he said. "We can and we must do better."

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, echoed Lewis' call.

"As long as discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or disability remains a sad, harsh reality in this country, the battle against it must remain a central priority of the Civil Rights Division," said Henderson.

Congressman Lewis says the Justice Department must do more to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which codifies the guarantee in the 15th amendment to the Constitution that says no person shall be denied the right to vote on account of race or ethnicity.

Lewis is concerned about new voter identification laws in some states that require voters to show a photo ID at the polls. State officials say the laws are aimed at preventing voter fraud, but Lewis says requiring photo identification cards is an effort to make it harder for poor and minority voters to cast ballots.

"These people will be denied the right to participate in the democratic process, and that is why many of us took the position that is a photo ID amounts to a poll tax, you have to pay for it," said Lewis.

Lewis and the other civil rights leaders at the hearing called on Congress to step up their oversight of the Justice Department.