02.26.19

Senate Floor Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Introduction Of The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019

Nearly 54 years ago, a courageous band of civil rights activists – including my friend and hero, Congressman John Lewis – began a march for the right to vote from Selma to Montgomery. They marched non-violently in the face of unspeakable violence. They shed their blood for the ballot. 

Their march – and that struggle for voting equality – lives on to this very day. Just months ago, during our midterm elections, several states methodically attempted to disenfranchise minority voters. Their tactics were brazen and transparent. And, unfortunately, they succeeded in suppressing the vote of thousands of Americans.

Prior to the 2018 election, Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged hundreds of thousands of Georgians – disproportionately minorities who were likely to vote for his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams in a competitive gubernatorial race – from voter rolls under a “use it or lose it” policy, casting out voters who had not participated in an election within a prescribed period of time. On election day, thousands of Georgians found themselves unable to cast ballots as a result of this voter purge. In what ended up being a historically tight race, these suppression tactics did their trick, handing Kemp a victory by silencing thousands of voters. 

But Georgia is hardly an exception to the rule. Nearly half of all states have imposed a regime of onerous restrictions on voting since the 2010 elections. These restrictions take many forms, but all share one purpose and one purpose alone – to making voting more difficult for minorities and the marginalized. Alabama imposed a strict photo ID law that may have made over 100,000 voters – mostly poor minorities – ineligible to vote in the 2018 elections. North Dakota instituted a proof of address requirement that disenfranchised thousands of Native American voters, many of whom lack residential addresses because they live on reservations and receive their mail at P.O. boxes.

Just last week, a North Carolina congressional race was voided after officials uncovered evidence that the Republican candidate’s campaign financed an illegal absentee ballot harvesting operation through which thousands of ballots may have been tampered with or simply not submitted. And the list goes on.

These suppression efforts are unacceptable and un-American. But because of a disastrous Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, they are almost impossible to stop. In the wake of Shelby County – which gutted Section 5 of the Voting Right Acts and consequently crippled the federal government’s ability to prevent discriminatory changes to state voting laws – states have unleashed this torrent of voter suppression schemes. Because of a single, misguided, 5 to 4 decision, the federal government can no longer effectively serve as a shield against disenfranchisement operations targeting minorities and the disadvantaged across the country.

The proliferation of threats to the right to vote in the wake of Shelby County makes it unmistakably clear why we need the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. That is why I am introducing the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 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.  

I am proud to reintroduce the Voting Rights Advancement Act with forty five cosponsors in the Senate. And I am proud to introduce my bill alongside companion legislation in the House of Representative, led by Congresswoman Terri Sewell and my friend Congressman John Lewis, with more than 200 members of the House Democratic caucus signing on to that bill. 

Although this effort currently only has Democratic signatures behind it, I hope we can all agree that protecting the sacrosanct right to vote should not be a partisan issue. Empowering our citizens to vote should never be dismissed as some kind of partisan power grab. In America, it is the governed who possess power. They need not grab something which is already theirs.

In the months ahead, I hope that some of my Republican friends cross the aisle and join this effort. After all, passing the Voting Rights Act was an overwhelmingly bipartisan endeavor. Strengthening and modernizing it, as my legislation seeks to do, should be as well.  

History is watching. The right to vote 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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David Carle: 202-224-3693