07.14.21

Statement At The Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing: "Restoring The Voting Rights Act After Brnovich And Shelby County"

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing on what Congress must do to restore the Voting Rights Act in response to the Supreme Court’s sustained efforts to cripple it. The VRA is one of this body’s greatest legislative achievements, and it has enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support for virtually its entire existence. So it is an affront to the will of Congress that two partisan decisions have gutted the landmark law making our democracy accessible to millions who have wrongfully been shut out from it.

In some ways, the Brnovich decision a few weeks ago didn’t surprise me. It followed the same play book as the disastrous Shelby County decision in 2013, where a partisan majority on the Court replaced Congress’s clear will with its own and gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Like Shelby County, the Brnovich decision ignored the well-established intent of Congress and invented – seemingly out of thin air – new hurdles around Section 2 of the VRA, effectively strangling it.

Now let’s be clear:  Gutting Section 5 and Section 2 of the VRA is not some exercise in judicial nibbling around the margins of the VRA. Section 5 and Section 2 are the vital organs of the law. Section 5 empowers the Justice Department to stop discriminatory changes to voting procedures from taking effect; Section 2 empowers ordinary Americans to seek redress in court against voting changes discriminating against minority voters. So the partisan majority on the Supreme Court knew exactly what it was doing by nullifying Section 5 and Section 2 of the Act. Without them, the VRA is on life support. And we, the people, are left with few tools to protect our precious right to vote.

The Brnovich decision could not have come at a worse moment. Empowered by the Shelby County decision, and fueled by the former president’s wild-eyed “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him, dozens of states have rushed to enact voter suppression laws. With each passing week, literally tens of thousands of Americans are having their right to vote chipped away. So it was already a five-alarm fire for Americans’ voting rights before the Brnovich decision. When the Brnovich decision took away one of the last remaining tools to battle this blaze, VRA’s Section 2, it effectively declared it open season to suppress Americans’ voting rights with impunity.   

So Congress must not sit idly by while the sacrosanct right to vote is under assault. Those who argue that restoring the VRA is a partisan exercise could use a little history lesson. Since its original enactment in 1965, the VRA and its core provisions have been reauthorized repeatedly – five times – with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes in Congress. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush all signed VRA reauthorizations into law, touting the profound importance of the landmark law for our democracy. I myself voted to reauthorize the VRA four times throughout my service in the Senate, standing proudly alongside both Democrats and Republicans. The most recent VRA reauthorization in 2006 was a 98 to 0 vote in the Senate – let me repeat, 98 to 0 – with multiple Republican Senators still serving today who voted yes. 

Perhaps we should check our facts before arguing that restoring the VRA is a partisan effort. It is most decidedly not. What is a partisan effort is the Court’s decisions in Shelby County and Brnovich, which replaced the will of the American people’s representatives with the reasoning of a handful of justices. 

So let’s get to work. I have authored and long championed the bipartisan John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which I will push to enact with all my might to finally restore the Voting Rights Act. I hope that more of our Republican friends will join us in reauthorizing and restoring the VRA today as they have in the past. I hope they recognize now – as they did then – that protecting voting rights is not about helping one party or the other. It is about protecting democracy for all of us. Let’s show the American people that standing up for a government of, by, and for the people is bigger than party. Let’s show the world that democracy is not what divides us, but what unites us. 

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