Here’s How Congressional Democrats Are Calling Out Persistent Voting Discrimination
On the House and Senate floors, at a roundtable discussion, in statements, and on social media, the need to restore the Voting Rights Act was highlighted over and over again this week.
1. Rep. John Lewis, Georgia
On Wednesday morning, Rep. Lewis convened a roundtable discussion on voting rights attended by House and Senate Democrats, in addition to experts from several civil rights organizations. His opening remarks framed the conversation:
This is the first time since the national Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 that the presidential election will not be covered by the Voting Rights Act. We’ve made a great deal of progress during the past 50 years, but without the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we can go backwards. Senator, I’ve said on many occasions that the right to vote is precious, it’s almost sacred, it is the most powerful, nonviolent tool that we have in a democratic society, and all of our citizens must be allowed to use it.
During the past few months and years, I’ve traveled across the country, and I know that there is a deliberate, persistent, systematic effort to make it harder and more difficult for the disabled, student, senior, minority, the poor, and rural voters to participate in the democratic process. That’s not right. It’s not fair. And it’s not just. The tactics may change, but the will remains the same.
2. Rep. Terri Sewell, Alabama
Rep. Sewell, who represents Selma, Ala., spoke at the roundtable on Wednesday, and later that night hosted a special order hour on the House floor to describe, in detail, why restoring the VRA is so critical.
As a daughter of Selma, Ala., I am painfully aware that the injustices suffered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago have not been fully vindicated. Although we no longer are required to count how many marbles are in a jar, or recite how any counties there are in the state of Alabama, my proposition to you Mr. Speaker is that there still exists modern-day barriers to voting. Those barriers may not be as overt as they were 50 years ago, but Mr. Speaker, they are no less stained. They are no less important than those other barriers were.
Watch the entire speech here.
3. Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina
At the roundtable, Rep. Clyburn, Assistant Democratic Leader, stressed that lawmakers have done the work in updating the formula struck down in Shelby County v. Holder. They just need a vote. “All that’s required at this point is for the Speaker of the House to put the issue on the floor,” Clyburn said. “Do not deny us a vote as so many of our states are denying our constituents an effective vote.”
4. Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey
Sen. Booker focused on formerly incarcerated people who — because of racist voting laws — are unable to cast a ballot.
“It’s stunning to me the level of disenfranchisement we see in our country,” Booker said.
We have one out of every 13 African Americans in general who have lost their rights to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. It’s overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of states. We have about 45 percent of the people who are disenfranchised in just 11 states. We have swing states like Florida where one out of every five African Americans have lost their right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. And that continues — in Kentucky, 22 percent of Blacks have lost their right to vote.
5. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, North Carolina
Rep. Butterfield, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at the roundtable discussion that “Section 5 has been the most powerful instrument that we’ve had in our toolbox in order to enforce voting rights.”
“The ball is now in our court here in the Congress to update Section 4, the formula, so that Section 5 can be enforced. Until Section 5 is enforceable we’re going to continue to see spontaneous changes in election laws that are going to have a profound impact on minority voters.”
He also described the pernicious timing of his state’s monster voter suppression law, which was struck down this July for being intentionally discriminatory. The day after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republican state senators announced they’d move forward with the bill — and weeks later it was signed into law.
6. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York
Sen. Gillibrand moderated the roundtable discussion, saying at the beginning that “We need to do everything we can to make sure that no American citizen is blocked from casting their vote on Election Day.”
7. Rep. Marc Veasey, Texas
During Sewell’s special order hour, Rep. Veasey — at 9 p.m. — took to the floor.
In 2013, Shelby v. Holder, gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act and set in motion what many feared — that was the subjugation of minorities, seniors, low-income Americans to unfair, punitive barriers that make it hard for them to vote, make it hard for people to exercise their very basic right as an American citizen.
Veasey noted that in Texas, under the state’s voter ID law implemented after Shelby, Texans could use a gun license to vote — but not a student ID. The 5th Circuit ruled against that law in July.
8. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont
Sen. Leahy, the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, took to Twitter on Wednesday to express his frustration that the historically bipartisan VRA couldn’t even get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Congress. Leahy introduced a bill to restore the law — the Voting Rights Advancement Act — in June 2015.
9. Rep. John Conyers, Michigan
In a statement submitted for the record during Sewell’s special order hour, Rep. Conyers wrote of the dangers of not having an enforceable Section 5 of the VRA:
Though Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is still available to challenge these discriminatory practices, the time and expense of litigation leaves these practices in place to do years of damage and places a substantial burden on the rights of minority voters. It took years of litigation to roll back the challenged practices mentioned earlier in Texas and North Carolina. We will enter a Presidential election without Section 5 protection for the first time in 50 years. The danger to our democratic process cannot be overstated. Already, we have heard political candidates discussing voting intimidation tactics and we must focus on the status of federal observers under the law.
10. Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio
In a floor speech on Monday, Sen. Brown called Shelby County a “misguided decision” and reminded his colleagues of the VRA’s bipartisan history. “This body refuses to bring to the floor the bipartisan Voting Rights Advancement Act,” Brown said as he closed. “In 1981, when signing an extension to the Voting Rights Act, President Reagan called the right to vote ‘the crown jewel of American liberties.’ Ronald Reagan would have seen his political party today going in exactly the opposite direction, and that is sad.”
11. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, New York
Rep. Velázquez, who represents part of Brooklyn, also submitted a statement for the record to highlight the voter purge that took place during this year’s primary.
Let’s be absolutely clear — there remain serious challenges and problems when it comes to protecting voters. By no means are the protections in the VRA out-of-date or no longer necessary. We saw a stark example of this earlier this year — in Brooklyn. In April, some 120,000 voters from the rolls in Kings County — the largest county in the state — were improperly purged from the voter rolls. And, an analysis by local media outlets found those affected were disproportionately Latino voters — mostly in working class neighborhoods like Sunset Park, East New York, and parts of Bushwick and Williamsburg. Now, let’s recall that Kings County was previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Would these voters have been removed if the VRA were still intact? The fact is we do not know. But we do know this — our democracy and our system of voting is not perfect — and to argue that voters are no longer disenfranchised is simply false. We’ve seen that clearly in Brooklyn.
12. Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois
Sen. Durbin also joined Wednesday’s roundtable discussion and called out the myth of voter fraud.
Let’s call this what it is — this isn’t about ending voter fraud. This is about suppressing the vote, discouraging people from voting. I can’t think of any political position more antithetical for the party of Abraham Lincoln, but that is where they are today.
13. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia
Earlier this month, Del. Norton introduced a resolution calling on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act and condemning voter suppression laws. On Wednesday afternoon, she took to the House floor to talk about it.
14. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, California
Rep. Roybal-Allard submitted a statement for the record calling out discriminatory laws that suppress the vote and urged Republican leadership to help pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act.
In July of this year, the Texas U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, found that the state’s voter ID law discriminated against African-American and Latino voters. Days later, judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in North Carolina found that North Carolina state law targeted black voters, and I quote, ‘‘with almost surgical precision.’’ While these are important victories it is nevertheless a tragedy to our Democracy that so much time and money has been spent for American voters to win back a right already granted to them under the Constitution of the United States. The ability to vote is not a Democratic or Republican right. It is an American right and the cornerstone of our democracy. Today, I join my colleagues in urging the Republican leadership to join Democrats to live up to their Constitutional responsibility to protect every American’s right to vote by passing H.R. 2867, the Voting Rights Advancement Act. The ability to vote is one of the most fundamental rights.
15. Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland
Sen. Cardin participated in the roundtable discussion, decrying the congressional inaction since Shelby County. “We could have corrected it, but we haven’t taken action yet to correct it because the Republican leadership is blocking us from doing that. We need to make sure that we have the full protections of the Voting Rights Act in our elections, and this election it will not take place.”
16. Rep. Grace Meng, New York
In her statement for the record, Rep. Meng emphasized that court rulings this summer only bolster the necessity to restore the VRA.
Mr. Speaker, I think it surprises few of us that following the Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the right to vote has been increasingly attacked in states across the country. The court’s decision invalidated the coverage formula in the Voting Rights Act by which certain states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination were required to preclear election changes with the U.S. Department of Justice. The results have been grave. Since 2010, twenty-two states have implemented new voting restrictions that make it more difficult for students, seniors, those with disabilities, and minorities to vote. This past summer alone, federal courts struck down new prohibitive voting laws in five different states. Federal protections, such as preclearance, prevent these pernicious laws from being passed in the first place, and this recent surge of court cases only underscores the importance of restoring the Voting Rights Act. Disenfranchisement and voter discrimination are realities that Americans face across the country, including in my district in New York City.
17. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota
Sen. Klobuchar talked about two other bills that would make voting easier: The Same Day Registration Act and the Automatic Voter Registration Act — the latter which received wide support from civil rights organizations when she introduced it with Sens. Leahy and Durbin this July.
18. Rep. Marcia Fudge, Ohio
On Thursday, Rep. Fudge released a statement on her concurrent resolution — introduced last week — that would designate the first Monday in October as “National Voting Rights Act Mobilization Day.”
Fifty-one years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the fight for equal access to the ballot box is far from over. Since the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, many states have enacted laws that disenfranchise vulnerable voting blocs. Ohioans, too, are experiencing the impact of voter suppression efforts. Just last week, recent restrictions in our state were upheld, eliminating our critical ‘Golden Week,’ which allows same day registration and voting. The strength of our democracy depends on the participation of every citizen, and the Voting Rights Act removes discriminatory barriers to participation. National Voting Rights Act Mobilization Day would remind us of the importance of this landmark legislation, and galvanize communities to continue the fight for its full protections. No one should be denied the right to vote. The ballot belongs to everyone.
19. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, Missouri
The St. Louis American on Tuesday published a column by Rep. Clay, “Treat Every Voter the Same,” that ended on this note:
Imagine that: treat every voter the same, protect the integrity of every ballot, and make participating in our democracy easier, not harder. That is a completely American idea.