Mr. President, I rise
today, both humbled and honored by the opportunity to express my
support for renewal of the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights
Act of 1965.
I want to thank the many
people inside and outside of Congress who worked so hard over the
past year to get us here. We owe a debt of gratitude to the leadership
on both sides of the aisle, and we owe special thanks to Chairmen
Sensenbrenner and Specter, Ranking Members Conyers and Leahy, and
Rep. Mel Watt. Without their work and dedication - and the support
of voting rights advocates around the country - I doubt this bill
would have come before us so soon.
And I want to thank both
chambers, and both sides of the aisle, for getting this done with
the same broad support that drove the original Act 40 years ago.
At a time when Americans are frustrated with the partisan bickering
that too often stalls our work, the refreshing display of bipartisanship
we are seeing today reflects our collective belief in the success
of the Act and reminds us of how effective we can be when we work
Nobody can deny that we've
come a long way since 1965.
Look at registration numbers.
Only two years after passage of the original Act, registration numbers
for minority voters in some states doubled. Soon after, not a single
state covered by the Voting Rights Act had registered less than
half of its minority voting-age population.
Look at the influence of
African-American elected officials at all levels of government.
There are African-American members of Congress. Since 2001, our
nation's top diplomat has been an African-American.
In fact, most of America's
elected African-American officials come from the states covered
by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act - states like Mississippi
and Alabama and Louisiana and Georgia.
But to me, the most striking
evidence of our progress can be found right across this building,
in my dear friend, Congressman John Lewis, who was on the front
lines of the civil rights movement, risking life and limb for freedom.
And on March 7, 1965, he led 600 peaceful protestors demanding the
right to vote across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
I've often thought about
the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day. Not only John Lewis
and Hosea Williams leading the march, but the hundreds of everyday
Americans who left their homes and their churches to join it. Blacks
and whites, teenagers and children, teachers and bankers and shopkeepers
- a beloved community of God's children ready to stand for freedom.
And I wonder, where did
they find that kind of courage? When you're facing row after row
of state troopers on horseback armed with billy clubs and tear gas...when
they're coming toward you spewing hatred and violence, how do you
simply stop, kneel down, and pray to the Lord for salvation?
But the most amazing thing
of all is that after that day - after John Lewis was beaten within
an inch of his life, after people's heads were gashed open and their
eyes were burned and they watched their children's innocence literally
beaten out of them...after all that, they went back to march again.
They marched again. They
crossed the bridge. They awakened a nation's conscience, and not
five months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into
law. And it was reauthorized in 1970, 1975, and 1982.
Now, in 2006, John Lewis,
the physical scars from those marches still visible, is an original
cosponsor of the fourth reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act,
and he was joined last week by 389 of his House colleagues in voting
for its passage.
There are some who argue
the Act is no longer needed, that the protections of Section 5's
"pre-clearance" requirement - a requirement that ensures
certain states are upholding the right to vote - are targeting the
wrong states. But the evidence refutes that notion. Of the 1,100
objections issued by the Department of Justice since 1965, 56% occurred
since the last reauthorization in 1982. So, despite the progress
these states have made in upholding the right to vote, it's clear
that problems still exist.
Others have argued against
renewing Section 203's protection of language minorities. Unfortunately,
these arguments have been tied to the debate over immigration and
muddle a non-controversial issue - protecting the right to vote
- with one of today's most contentious debates.
But let's remember: you
can't request language assistance if you're not a voter, and you
can't be a voter if you're not a citizen. And while voters, as citizens,
must be proficient in English, many are simply more confident that
they can cast ballots printed in their native languages without
A representative of the
Southwestern Voter Registration Project is quoted as saying: "Citizens
who prefer Spanish registration cards do so because they feel more
connected to the process; they also feel they trust the process
more when they understand it." These sentiments - connection
to and trust in our democratic process - are exactly what we want
from our voting rights legislation.
Our challenges don't end
at reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act either. We have to prevent
the problems we've seen in recent elections from happening again.
We've seen political operatives purge voters from registration rolls
for no legitimate reason, prevent eligible ex-felons from casting
ballots, distribute polling equipment unevenly, and deceive voters
about the time, location and rules of elections. Unfortunately,
these efforts have been directed primarily at minorities, the disabled,
low-income individuals, and other historically disenfranchised groups.
The Help America Vote Act
was a big step in the right direction, but we need to do more. We
need to fully fund HAVA. We need to enforce critical requirements
like statewide registration databases. We need to make sure polling
equipment is distributed equitably and that the equipment works.
And we need to work on getting more people to the polls on election
We need to make sure that
minority voters are not the subject of deplorable intimidation tactics
when they do get to the polls. In 2004, Native American voters in
South Dakota were confronted by men posing as law enforcement. These
hired intimidators joked about jail time for ballot missteps, and
followed voters to their cars to record their license plate numbers.
In Lake County, Ohio, some
voters received a memo on bogus Board of Elections letterhead informing
voters who registered through Democratic and NAACP drives that they
could not vote.
In Wisconsin, a flier purporting
to be from the "Milwaukee Black Voters League" was circulated
in predominantly African-American neighborhoods with the following
message: "If you've already voted in any election this year,
you can't vote in the presidential election. If you violate any
of these laws, you can get ten years in prison and your children
will get taken away from you."
So, we have much more work
to do. This occasion is cause for celebration, but it's also an
opportunity to renew our commitment to voting rights. As Congressman
Lewis said last week: "It's clear that we have come a great
distance, but we still have a great distance to go."
The memory of Selma still
lives on in the spirit of the Voting Rights Act. Since that day,
the Voting Rights Act has been a critical tool in ensuring that
all Americans not only have the right to vote, but the right to
have their vote counted. Those of us concerned about protecting
those rights can't afford to sit on our laurels upon reauthorization
of this bill. We must take advantage of this rare united front and
continue the fight to ensure unimpeded access to the polls for all
Americans. In other words, we need to take the spirit that existed
on that bridge, and we have to spread it across this country.
Two weeks after the first
march was turned back, Dr. King told a gathering of organizers and
activists and community members that they should not despair because
the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
That's because of the work that each of us do to bend it towards
justice. It's because of people like John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer
and Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, all the giants upon whose
shoulders we stand that we are the beneficiaries of that arc bending
That's why I stand here
today. I would not be in the United States Senate had it not been
for the efforts and courage of so many parents and grandparents
and ordinary people who were willing to reach up and bend that arc
in the direction of justice. I hope we continue to see that spirit
live on, not just during this debate, but throughout all our work
here in the Senate. Thank you.