03.03.20

Statement Regarding The 55th Anniversary Of "Bloody Sunday" And The Urgent Need For Leader McConnell To Allow A Vote On VRAA

. . . . Senate Floor

Fifty-five years ago, a courageous band of civil rights activists, including the fearless John Lewis, began a march for the sacred right to vote.  They marched from Selma to Montgomery, and they marched in the face of unspeakable violence.  They shed their blood for access to the ballot.  While much has changed in the last 55 years, this struggle for voting equality, and this march for progress, continues.

On Sunday, I was inspired yet again by my hero and dear friend, now-Congressman John Lewis, who summoned depthless strength to lead thousands in commemorating the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  This was not merely a commemoration – it was a clarion call to action.

Congressman Lewis, his voice booming over the crowd, reminded us all to “continue to fight . . . now more than ever.” “I’m not going to give up,” he thundered; “I’m not going to give in.” I stand with my friend, Congressman Lewis.  And I’m not going to give in either.

Over the past several years, a number of states have done all they could to disenfranchise tens of thousands of minority voters.  Their tactics were brazen and transparent.  While these voter suppression schemes took many forms – from sweeping purges of voter rolls to arbitrary, new identification requirements – they all shared one purpose and one purpose alone: making voting more difficult for minorities and the marginalized.  As a federal judge observed when striking down one such state’s voter ID law, it sought to disenfranchise “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” 

Today we are seeing a reprise of these efforts ahead of one of the most consequential elections in the history of our democracy.  Those who seek to repress the vote don’t even pretend to hide their intent. 

In November, a senior advisor to President Trump’s re-election campaign came right out and said the quiet part out loud.  He observed that “traditionally . . . Republicans suppres[s] votes,” and predicted that voter suppression is “going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program” in 2020.

In May 2019, Tennessee enacted a draconian law imposing criminal penalties against voter registration groups who submitted so-called deficient registration forms.  In October 2019, Florida’s state legislature tried to undo a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by Floridians to restore voting rights to former felons.  These efforts have thankfully been halted, at least temporarily, in the courts.  But there will be other states who attempt what Florida and Tennessee tried – or even worse.  And those who value the sanctity of the vote will be engaged in an endless war of whack-a-mole in the courts to stop these un-American efforts to suppress the right to vote.

Why have states been given such free rein to suppress the minority vote?  It’s because of the disastrous 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted Section 5 of the Voting Right Acts and crippled the federal government’s ability to proactively prevent discriminatory changes to state voting laws.  In the wake of Shelby County, states have unleashed a torrent of voter suppression schemes, knowing full well that the federal government can no longer serve as a shield against disenfranchisement. 

This must change – and change now – because our democracy depends on it.  The proliferation of threats to the right to vote in the wake of Shelby County makes it unmistakably clear we need the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

That is exactly why, for years, I have championed, authored, and re-introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act.  I reintroduced this legislation again in 2019.  It is a bipartisan bill – let me repeat that, it is a bipartisan bill – to restore Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, improve and modernize that landmark legislation, and provide the federal government with other critical tools to combat this full-fledged assault on the franchise. 

A total of 47 Senators support this commonsense effort to protect the right to vote.  I am confident it would pass if the Majority Leader simply let it come to a vote.  And the House has already passed its companion version of my legislation.

It is offensive to claim that this bipartisan, bicameral legislation is some kind of partisan power grab. In America, it is the governed who possess the power.  Restoring their power is not partisan.  Restoring their power is what it means to be a democracy.

So all eyes are now on Senate Majority Leader McConnell.  Will he release the Voting Rights Advancement Act from his legislative graveyard?  Will he simply allow an up or down vote on this legislation to restore the bipartisan Voting Rights Act of 1965?

History is watching.  As my hero and friend John Lewis powerfully reminded us this past Sunday, “we’ve got to make America better for all of her people . . . we’re one people, we’re one family.”  The right to vote for all Americans is the beating heart of our form of government.  Indeed, it is the very right that gives democracy its name.  Let us show the world that we are deserving of that name.

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