Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the Introduction of the 2014 Voting Rights Act Amendment
January 16, 2014
Almost five decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the original Voting Rights Act into law. At the signing, he spoke eloquently about the central purpose of the law. He said: “This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny.”
A lot has changed since 1965 and much progress has been made, but seven years ago the Senate and House examined whether racial discrimination in voting was still a problem that required a Federal solution. After a long series of hearings in both chambers and based upon a mountain of evidence, Democrats and Republicans came together to conclude that racial discrimination in voting is still a problem and the protections that voters have had under the Voting Rights Act were still needed. Yet last summer, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that struck at the heart of the Voting Rights Act when it held that the coverage provision of Section 5 was unconstitutional because it was not sufficiently based on current conditions. In doing so, the Court made clear that Congress could update the law to reinstitute the protections of Section 5 coverage if it were based on more recent conduct.
Today, I am pleased to announce that we are responding to the Court’s decision by introducing a bill that helps reinvigorate the most vital protections of the Act. Through months of cooperation, negotiation, and compromise, Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Conyers and I have agreed on a bipartisan and bicameral proposal to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision last summer. Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied their constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color. We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support.
Under our bipartisan bill, all states and jurisdictions are eligible for Section 5 protections under a new coverage formula, which is based on repeated voting rights violations in the last 15 years. This coverage provision is based solely on a state’s or local jurisdiction’s recent voting rights record. Significantly, the 15-year period “rolls” or continuously moves to keep up with “current conditions,” as the Supreme Court stated should be a basis for any coverage provision. If a state that is covered establishes a clean record moving forward, it will fall out of coverage. In addition, the existing bailout provision would still be available for states or jurisdictions that can establish that they had a clean record in a 10-year span. These provisions ensure that the coverage provision is not over-inclusive because jurisdictions that have not repeatedly violated the voting rights of its constituents can come out from under preclearance requirements.
Our bill would also improve the Voting Rights Act to allow our Federal courts to bail-in the worst actors for preclearance. Current law permits states or jurisdictions to be bailed in only for intentional voting rights violations, but to ensure that the worst discrimination in voting is captured, the bill would amend the Act to allow states or jurisdictions to be bailed in for results-based violations, where the effect of a particular voting measure is to deny an individual his or her right to vote.
In recognition that voters need to be aware of changes in laws affecting their right to vote, the bill provides for greater transparency in elections. Sunlight is a great disinfectant, as Justice Brandeis once observed. And in this instance, the additional sunlight will protect voters from discrimination. The transparency provisions provide for public notice and information in three areas. The first part requires public notice of late breaking changes in Federal elections. The second part requires information on polling place resource allocation for Federal elections. And the third part requires information on changes to electoral districts, including demographic information, to prevent racial gerrymandering, impermissible redistricting, and infringement on minority voters. The last part requires this information for Federal, state and local elections because the most impermissible conduct oftentimes occurs in state and local elections.
And finally, our bill revises the preliminary injunction standard for voting rights actions. The principle behind this part of the proposal is the recognition that when voting rights are at stake, obtaining relief after the election has already concluded is too late to vindicate the individuals’ voting rights. We recognize that there will be cases where there is a special need for immediate, preliminary relief where the plaintiff can establish that the voting measure is likely to be discriminatory.
This proposal is a bipartisan effort to provide a narrow fix to address the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision to ensure that all Americans are protected from racial discrimination in voting. I am confident and hopeful that the Congress can work together as a body – not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans -- to ensure that we root out all voter discrimination with a strong and reinvigorated Voting Rights Act.
I am confident we can do this because protecting voting rights has always been a bipartisan effort. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. That law was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. In the Senate, the vote was 79 to18. In the House, the vote was 328 to74. In the four times since it was reauthorized, the support for the law has only increased. In fact, when President George W. Bush signed the most recent reauthorization in 2006, the vote in the Senate was 98 to 0 and the vote in the House was 390 to 33. Too often there is gridlock in Congress, but when it comes to the Voting Rights Act, there is almost unanimous agreement on the principle that no American should be denied his or her right to vote or to participate in our democracy.
My hope is that we can continue this legacy of bipartisanship on the issue of voting rights. As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, we should remember the words of Dr. King, who, in a powerful speech about the right to vote said: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others. So our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.” I believe that the bipartisan bill we are introducing today honors the spirit of those words. I thank Senators Durbin and Coons for working with me and I look forward to working with all Senators on this important legislation.
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