Opening Remarks: Protecting A Precious, Almost Sacred Right: The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

. . . . Senate Judiciary Committee

[A day after Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced his long-awaited bill modifying his John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday is holding a hearing on Leahy’s bill.  Leahy has long been the author and chief sponsor of the Senate bill to remedy Supreme Court decisions that undermined the Voting Rights Act.  Leahy’s opening statement FOLLOWS:]

Today, the Committee is discussing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill that I have championed for years in the ongoing effort to restore the landmark Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Advancement Act has been bipartisan for many years – just like all the efforts to restore the VRA before it – and I hope it continues to garner bipartisan support this Congress. Like the evolving decisions from the Court impacting the Voting Rights Act, so, too, must this legislation evolve to address emerging concerns.

It may be surprising to some to learn that the Voting Rights Act – improving, strengthening and reauthorizing it – has been an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort for decades. I hope that the toxic partisanship of American politics today will not obscure what has for decades united us across party lines.  Republican and Democratic members of this Committee voted in support of reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in 2006.  It wasn’t long ago we stood side by side to unanimously approve the 2006 reauthorization of VRA, and proudly tout it together on the steps of the Capitol.  I rather wonder what has changed.  The belief that protecting our right to vote is bigger than party or politics is not novel or new.  It is the belief that a system of self-government – a government of, by, and for the people – is one that is worth preserving for generations to come.  

And fundamentally that’s what the John Lewis VRAA is all about. It simply seeks to ensure that Americans of all parties, all races, and all backgrounds have their right to vote protected. It is not, nor has it ever been, an effort to empower one party over the other. It is not about a “federal takeover” of elections. It is not about empowering fraudulent voting.  It is about empowering citizens to fulfill their constitutional duty and exercise their legal right to vote. And surely we, elected representatives of the people, should be able to agree that this is a right worth protecting.

The legislation I introduced yesterday is the culmination of many months negotiation both here in the Senate, and in the House, and consultation with the Department of Justice – a process Congressman Lewis would have embraced. The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision decreed that Congress must build a fulsome record of current voting conditions and then premise any legislation restoring the VRA on that record. We have methodically, for years, done just that. 

So what does that record show? It demonstrates that action from Congress is needed – and demanded – to defend against efforts to restrict the right to vote in states across the country. The House answered that call to action by passing a bold version of the John Lewis VRAA this summer. And yesterday, we did our part by introducing a Senate version that stayed true to the goals of the House-passed legislation, and incorporated input we have received through ongoing bipartisan conversations.

This should not be a partisan issue, and I hope this Committee will not make it one. I pledge, here and now, that I will continue to work in good faith with Senators of both parties to find common ground. Protecting our precious right to vote – the very right that gives democracy is name – is far more important than party or politics. Every one of us here recognizes the sacrifices of people like our friend and hero, John Lewis. The question is whether we are willing to live up to his example, put aside our differences, and do what is right for our democracy. I know we can.  We just have to have the will to try.   

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