Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, And Senate President Pro Tempore, On the Anniversary of the March on Washington and the Voting Rights Act

Nearly 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall.  At the time, I was entering my last year of law school.  I was inspired by the March on Washington and knew that history was being made before my very eyes.  The youngest speaker at the March was a compelling man by the name of John Lewis.  Many spoke of their unyielding support for civil rights legislation, but John Lewis demanded more.  He demanded that the civil rights bill protect the right of every American to vote free from discrimination.  With his strong and forceful voice, he proclaimed that “One man, one vote is the African cry.  It is ours too.  It must be ours.”

A year and a half later, John Lewis would lead another march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  There, state troopers brutally beat, bloodied, and trampled John Lewis and the group of peaceful marchers he led.  Those powerful images from “Bloody Sunday” were captured on television and in vivid photographs, and would become a catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act into law several months later, he fittingly gave one of the pens to John Lewis.

The Voting Rights Act has become the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in this Nation’s history.  It has worked to protect the Constitution’s guarantees against racial discrimination in voting for nearly five decades.  It has helped minorities of all races overcome major barriers to participation in the political process, through the use of such devices as poll taxes, intimidation by voting officials, registration and language barriers, and systematic vote dilution. 

Despite the continuing evidence of racial discrimination in voting that Congress amassed in 2006, the Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that makes it more difficult to protect all Americans from exercising their sacred right to vote.  In Shelby County v. Holder, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court held that the coverage formula for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.  Section 5 provides a remedy for unconstitutional discrimination in voting by requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to “pre-clear” all voting changes before they can take effect.  This remedy is both necessary and important because it stops the discriminatory voting practice before our fellow Americans’ rights are violated.  By striking down the coverage formula for Section 5, the Court’s ruling leaves this effective protection unenforceable.

Two weeks ago, I began a bipartisan conversation to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act when I chaired a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The hearing included meaningful testimony from John Lewis and Jim Sensenbrenner.  Both agreed that protecting the right to vote from discriminatory practices is neither a Democratic issue nor a Republican issue.  It is an American issue.

At this hearing, Republican City Commissioner Luz Urbáez Weinberg of Aventura, Florida also testified to the need to restore the protections of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  She urged Congress to demonstrate a “clear and principled commitment to equal voting rights for all Americans regardless of race, language spoken, and to also act swiftly to restore the protections.” 

Moreover, she made clear that maintaining the Voting Rights Act “is not a partisan issue.  It is a nonpartisan issue.  It is an issue for all Americans.  Whether Republicans or Democrats, all Americans strongly believe in fair and equal electoral opportunities.” 

It is true that America has made a lot of progress since the Voting Rights Act was first enacted.  Nobody denies this.  But, we are far from achieving the dream that Dr. King spoke of on that magnificent day in August of 1963.  Although the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula in the Shelby County case, the justices acknowledged, as they must and as the American people recognize, that discrimination in voting continues to be a problem.  As the Chief Justice rightly noted in the majority opinion, “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”  The question only remains how best to protect Americans against this discrimination.

This is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats have always come together on.  Every reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, including its initial passage, has been marked by overwhelming support by lawmakers of both parties.  In the last few weeks, I have heard people say that Congress is too gridlocked and will not act on voting rights.  That is wrong and it is unsupported by our tradition of leadership on this issue.  As my friend Senator Grassley said at the Senate Judiciary Committee voting rights hearing I chaired two weeks ago, “Cynicism and defeatism have never before characterized reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.”  Senator Grassley is right.  History shows that we have reauthorized the Act time and again because it is a nonpartisan issue.

Those who forecast failure also underestimate what a person like John Lewis can accomplish.  I, for one, would never underestimate John Lewis’s tenacity and ability to bring people together.

The Supreme Court’s ruling last month was a setback to the cause of equality.  However, we should see it as a calling for Congress to come together to meet the voting discrimination which persists with a steadfast resolve.  It is up to us to meet this challenge.  We must work together as a Congress – not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans – to ensure that we protect against racial discrimination in voting.  We can only do that with a strong Voting Rights Act.

Earlier today, at the bipartisan and bicameral event marking the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington at Statuary Hall, John Lewis said, “We have come a great distance but we are not finished yet.”  I could not agree more.  Let us continue to work to protect the fundamental right to vote for all Americans.

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