06.24.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the Introduction of the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015

This year marks the 50th anniversaries of the March from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act.  Passage of the Voting Rights Act was the result of the blood, sweat, and tears of so many brave Americans who marched for justice – and the decades-long work of countless other men and women committed to seeing our country live up to its promise of equality and justice for all.  Their actions transformed our nation.  On this 50th anniversary year, we pay special tribute to their legacy, but there is still work to be done.  Each generation must contribute to the fight for equality.  Each of us must answer the call to move this Nation toward a more perfect union.

In the coming weeks there will be continued celebrations of the passage of the original Voting Rights Act.  Unfortunately, two years ago, the Supreme Court voted to dismantle a core piece of that vital legislation.  In Shelby County v. Holder, five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court drove a stake through the heart of the Voting Rights Act.  Under Section 5 of the Act, the Federal government has the authority to examine and prevent racially discriminatory voting changes from being enacted before those changes disenfranchise voters in covered jurisdictions.  By striking down the coverage formula that determined which States and jurisdictions were subject to Federal review, the Court effectively gutted Section 5.  And in holding that the formula was based on outdated information, the Roberts Court disregarded thousands of pages of testimony and evidence from nearly 20 congressional hearings held when the law was reauthorized in 2006.

Within weeks of the Supreme Court’s devastating ruling, Republican governors and State legislatures exploited the Shelby County decision.  Several States with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting implemented sweeping laws that disproportionately suppressed the voting rights of minorities, the elderly, and young people. 

For example, Texas immediately implemented the most restrictive photo identification law in the country.  Although, a Federal judge found the law to be an “unconstitutional poll tax” that could disenfranchise up to 600,000 voters and disproportionately impact African Americans and Latinos, the law was allowed to disenfranchise voters this past election.

In North Carolina, the Republican legislature and Republican governor passed a far-reaching bill that restricted its citizens’ right to vote.  The bill cut early voting down from 17 days to 10 days, eliminated teenagers’ ability to preregister before their 18th birthday, and eliminated same day voter registration.  It also enacted a strict photo identification requirement, which is currently being challenged in court.

These are just a few of the numerous discriminatory voting restrictions that have been enacted since Shelby County was decided.  We cannot sit by as the fundamental right to vote is systematically undermined.  We must not retreat from our commitment to civil rights and the great accomplishments we celebrate this year.  As my friend Congressman John Lewis has stated, voting “is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”  Similarly, in 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston – the scene of the horrific tragedy last week – where he noted that voting rights was the key to achieving the American dream for all.  Their statements are as true today as they were fifty years ago, and that is why we must do all we can to protect that right for all Americans.

I challenge anyone to claim that racial discrimination no longer exists.  Even Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged in the Shelby County decision that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”  The Court further said that Congress may respond with legislation based on current conditions.  The bill we introduce today, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, is that response.  It reflects the very real, current conditions that Americans face when trying to participate in our democracy.

We have heard from Americans across the country whose voting rights have been diminished and suppressed since the Shelby County decision.  We have also heard from numerous voting rights experts and civil rights leaders who have called for strong legislation that would fully restore the protections gutted by the Court’s decision.  The legislation we are introducing today responds to those calls from the grassroots and the community leaders on the ground who are today’s foot soldiers for justice.  This bill also represents the hard work and commitment of civil rights organizations like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Native American Rights Fund, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the National Congress of American Indians, LatinoJustice, the Advancement Project, and many others.  I thank all of these organizations and the tireless individuals who have helped us shape this legislation.

This bill is a voting rights bill for all Americans.  It is a bill for the next generation, and helps protect the legacy of the previous generation who fought so hard five decades ago for these voting rights protections.

Under this bill, all States and local jurisdictions are eligible for Section 5 protections under a new coverage formula, which is based on a finding of repeated voting rights violations in the preceding 25 years.  Significantly, the 25-year period “rolls” or continuously moves to keep up with “current conditions,” as the Supreme Court stated must be a basis for any new coverage provision.  States that have repeated and persistent violations will be covered for a period of 10 years, but if a State establishes a clean record moving forward, it emerges from preclearance coverage.  In addition, the existing bailout provision would still be available so that States or local jurisdictions that establish a clean record can also emerge from coverage.

The bill also establishes a nationwide, targeted preclearance process for a limited set of voting changes that have historically been found to discriminate against minority voters.  For example, a racially diverse county that seeks to change a single-member district seat into an at-large seat will require preclearance because that kind of change has historically been used to marginalize minority voters.  Racial gerrymandering, annexations that dilute minority voting strength, strict photo identification requirements, reduction of multilingual voting materials, and the elimination of polling locations in jurisdictions that are racially, ethnically, or linguistically diverse, will also receive greater scrutiny under this bill.

Our bill would also improve the Voting Rights Act to allow Federal courts to bail-in specific jurisdictions where the effect of a particular voting change is to deny citizens their right to vote.  Under this provision, a Federal court could subject to preclearance any State or local jurisdiction that the court determines violated the Voting Rights Act or any other Federal law that prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.

The bill we introduce today will also ensure that voters are made aware of changes in laws affecting their right to vote.  Justice Brandeis once observed that sunlight is the best disinfectant and I believe that applies here as well.  Transparency is a strong deterrent to voting discrimination.  Under our bill, the public must be notified of late-breaking changes to standards and voting procedures in Federal elections.  Information on polling place resource allocation for Federal elections must also be made public, including information about accessibility for persons with disabilities.  Finally, information on changes to electoral districts must be made available to the general public.  This includes demographic information, to prevent racial gerrymandering, impermissible redistricting, and infringement on minority voters at the Federal, State and local levels.

 

The bill makes other commonsense improvements, such as amending current law to allow the Attorney General to request Federal observers in those jurisdictions where racial discrimination in voting remains a serious threat.  It revises the preliminary injunction standard for voting rights actions to recognize the principle that oftentimes, obtaining relief after the election has already concluded is too late to vindicate the individuals’ voting rights.  Thus, such temporary relief may be obtained where the complainant raises a “serious question” that – on balance – the hardship the voting change imposes on the complainant outweighs the hardship imposed upon the state or jurisdiction.

 

In addition, this bill addresses the unique challenges that Native American and Alaska Native voting populations encounter by:  allowing for more accessible polling locations and voter registration agencies; permitting absentee voting where polling locations are too remote; and ensuring ballots are translated into all written Native languages where current law already requires bilingual voting materials.

 

We are introducing this bill today because the persistent and evolving forms of voting discrimination require a strong response.  I am proud to be joined by so many lawmakers from both sides of the Capitol and all parts of the country.  I am joined by Senator Durbin, who worked with me in 2006 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.  We are also joined by Senator Coons, Leader Reid, all Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee, and many others.  In addition, the House of Representatives is today introducing a companion bill, led by my friend John Lewis and leaders of the House Tri-Caucus – Representative Terri Sewell of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Linda Sánchez of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Representative Judy Chu of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

 

I hope that Senate Republicans will join us soon as well.  The Voting Rights Act has always been bipartisan.  In 2006, when we last reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, I worked closely with the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees – former Senator Arlen Specter and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner.  And past reauthorizations have been signed into law by Republican presidents.  Yet over the past year, I have not found a Republican in the Senate willing to join me in proposing a meaningful reinstatement of voter protections. 

 

In marking the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma this past March, President Obama issued a call to action on the Voting Rights Act.  He observed that: “One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it.  If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year.  That’s how we honor those on this bridge.”

 

I agree with the President.  The best way we can honor those individuals and the countless others who gave so much to make this a more perfect union is not with platitudes or long overdue symbolic gestures.  No, we must act – just as they did.  We must continue to agitate, to organize, to educate, and to build momentum so that this legislation becomes law.  This bill, just as the Voting Rights Act before it, is necessary if we believe in a democracy that reflects our ideals of equality and justice.  This legislation will protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and advance the principles of those who marched a generation ago.

 

Much attention is focused on the Supreme Court this week as it is poised to hand down decisions that will affect millions of Americans.  The decisions of those nine women and men will impact the security of our health care, the sanctity of our marriages and the quality of the air we breathe.  What the Supreme Court does matters.  Its decisions affect us all.  Nowhere in recent years has that been more clear than in its Shelby County decision.  That destructive ruling made the fundamental right to vote vulnerable.  It is long past time for Congress to respond with meaningful action.

 

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