Rep. Waters Speaks to the ABA on the Voting Rights Act and the Urgency to Enact New Voting Rights Legislation
WASHINGTON – On Saturday, August 1, 2015, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Ranking Member of the Financial Services Committee, delivered the keynote speech at the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession Event titled, “50 Years Later: The Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Other Panelists at the event included Soledad O'Brien, Emmy and Peabody Award winning TV news anchor and journalist and Special Advisor, ABA Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights & Responsibilities, Hans von Spakovsky, Manager and Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation; and Tom Saenz, President & General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
In her remarks, Congresswoman Waters focused on the long history of attacks on African American and minority enfranchisement and recognized that, 50 year after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, we find ourselves in a similar position fighting to strengthened weakened voting protection laws. The Congresswoman highlighted the efforts of civil rights leader and advocates, including her colleague, Congressman John Lewis, and his career-long fight for the right to vote and called on Republicans in Congress to step to the plate and pass one of the several voting rights pieces of legislation introduced by Democrats this Congress.
The full text of her remarks can be found below:
I would like to thank Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, Jack Rives, the American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity and the entire ABA for having me here and hosting this very important and much needed discussion on the Voting Rights Act.
A common truth that we all have heard – maybe even well before we have understood it – is that history tends to repeat itself. And, as someone who has served as an elected official for over 30 years, I can attest that, if you are around long enough you find out that that saying rings very true. And there are few better examples of that than the recently renewed fight for the Voting Rights Act in the United States.
The story of the Voting Rights Act starts not at its passage, but with the short lived era of Reconstruction and the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. While the 13th Amendment freed the slaves, and the 14th Amendment gave them citizenship, the key amendment to the Reconstruction Era was the 15th Amendment, which gave male slaves the right to vote.
These new laws immediately enfranchised more than 700,000 black Southerners which instantly became the majority of eligible voters in some Southern states. As you can imagine, their enfranchisement revolutionized not only the Southern political system, but began to impact the Southern way of life.
Their effect was not only felt at the polls, but extended directly into the state and federal legislatures. Many scholars have identified that over 1500 African Americans held office during the Reconstruction Era, including Blanche K. Bruce, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, Hiram Revels, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, and Joseph Hayne Rainey, the First African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. With the influx of black legislators came new policies that addressed the needs and interest of this new Southern, African American electorate. For example, newly implemented policy changes such as creating state supported public schools or instituting property tax directly served to address the needs of an African American community high in numbers but short on wealth.
In response to African American enfranchisement, opponents throughout the South engaged in a determined, brutal and violent campaign to suppress the black vote. In an effort to “redeem the state”, black legislators were killed, threatened, beaten, or jailed. In their place arose white supremacists, who employed the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan, or in some cases were Klansmen themselves, to further suppress the black vote through additional violence. We are all too familiar with these tactics where blacks were held at gunpoint to keep them away from the polls. Crosses were burned and people were beaten for not acquiescing to these demands. As a result, black legislators and voters were silenced and conservatives quickly retook control of the South.
So, within 15 years of the Civil War’s end, Reconstruction, black legislators and black empowerment was just a distant memory. Without black legislators to stand in opposition, what followed was the era of Jim Crow, the poll tax, the literacy test, and a host of other mechanisms and states sanctioned policies that continued to block the black vote for decades, dismantle African American communities and destroy the dignity of life for African Americans in the South. At the heart of these policies and these tactics, was not just the desire to win elections, but also, the deep seated, ugly racist hatred against African Americans.
In response, starting with the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, followed by some of the most significant events in our history such as the killing of Emmitt Till, the stand taken by Rosa Parks, the creation of the Student Christian Leadership Conference, the Little Rock Nine, and the transformative leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement began. The Movement’s lofty goals were to combat this hatred against African Americans, eradicate Jim Crow policies, end racial segregation and secure the federal protections guaranteed by the Constitution. As we all know, the movement ultimately led Congress to finally pass the Civil Rights Act, once in 1957, and again in 1964, which extended several protections to African Americans in the context of education, employment and public accommodations.
However, in an effort to attract bi-partisan support, both pieces of legislation contained weakened voting provisions, largely leaving the harmful poll tax and the literacy tests in place. As a result, while African Americans saw progress, they still found their voices largely unheard.
Recognizing this shortcoming, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, a day now known as “Bloody Sunday”, six-hundred marchers assembled in Selma, Alabama and, led by my colleague John Lewis and other activists, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people.
“Bloody Sunday” was televised around the world. In response, Martin Luther King, Jr. called for civil rights supporters to come to Selma for a second march. King led the second protest two days later on March 9, 1965 but was forced to turn back, facing the same hatred and violence. Finally, on March 21st, only after being armed with federal protection, were activists able to successfully march to Montgomery.
At the marches conclusion, Dr. King directly pressured President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass comprehensive voting rights legislation. President Johnson, however, initially denied his request, reminding Dr. King that he had just passed the Civil Rights Act, claiming that the law sufficiently addressed African American civil rights. King persisted, explaining a sentiment that rings true today, that without comprehensive, strong and fully enforceable voting rights legislation, all the protections afforded in the Civil Rights Act were done in vain.
Dr. King’s persuasiveness eventually took hold, and 5 days after the march, President Johnson announced to a joint session of Congress that he would bring them an effective voting rights bill and on August 6, 1965, Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act hailed by many as the most effective civil rights law ever enacted.
The title as the most effective civil rights law was rightfully earned. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 contained the extraordinary measure, Section 5, which required 7 states with histories of black disenfranchisement to undergo preclearance, which means to submit any future changes in statewide, national and local voting law for approval by federal authorities.
Not only was the Voting Rights Act extraordinary, it was effective. By 1968, just three years after the Voting Rights Act became law; black voter registration had increased substantially across the South, to 62 percent.
This served as a clear indication that the legislation was not only needed but that it worked. Nevertheless, by subjecting certain states for additional scrutiny, the law was deemed the ultimate affront to states’ rights and continued to face political attacks. Despite these attacks, the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized on a bi-partisan basis, in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992 and, most recently, in 2006.
Since its enactment, African American progress has been wholly evident. The Black community has made voting and voter registration a top priority. In 1994 and in 1998 Jesse Jackson ran for President and his campaigned registered thousands of new voters. These black registration drives and black campaigns helped to elect hundreds of new black legislators in local, state and congressional races. Today, there are 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus which I have once chaired. I now continue to serve as a Member of the Caucus, whose primary purpose remains addressing the concerns and advancing the interests of the African American community and who maintain a commitment to ensuring voting rights, increasing voter registration and enhancing voter protections.
And of course, we can attribute the Voting Rights Act to the changes in this country that ultimately led to the election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
As was the case during Reconstruction, with the advent of African American electoral progress came great opposition. In the years that followed the election of President Obama, we witnessed a resurgence of tactics designed to erode voter protections that originally started in 2004 in the Bush v. Gore Presidential race. In 2004, we can surely all remember Florida where there were too few polling places, long lines, and a disproportionate numbers of minority votes not being counted.
Four short years later, President Obama won his first historic election, largely based on voter turnout and attracting a base of new minority and young voters.
So in response, in 2010, several states again began attempting to roll back early voting, eliminate same-day registration, disqualify ballots filed outside home precincts and create new demands for photo ID at polling places to discourage and prevent this new base of voters from getting to the polls.
Fortunately, through the persistent and tireless advocacy of civil rights organizations, black leadership and the efforts of then-Attorney General Eric Holder, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was invoked and eliminated the implementation of the majority of these harmful voting laws. Consequently, in 2012, for the first time in history black voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout by 2 percentage points and the nation re-elected its first black President for a second term.
But yet again, great backlash followed. In 2013, the following year, the Supreme Court dealt the Voting Rights Act its heaviest blow, in the case of Shelby v. Holder, which directly shutdown the Section 5 authority of the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, declared that because the Voting Rights Act worked so well, assumptions of voting discrimination are no longer valid and the law was no longer needed.
With Section 5 behind them, Republican state legislators immediately proceeded with a new round of even more restrictive voting laws. Since the passage of Shelby, 31 states have introduced a total of 82 bills that restrict voters’ access to the polls. For example, states have implemented statutes that limit early voting and registration or require voters to present voter identification. All of these statutes have the same effect as literacy tests and poll taxes – disproportionately limiting African American and minority votes. Because of the Shelby decision, these statutes are not only legal, but are implemented without any review or approval from the federal government.
As a result, in 2014, voters in 22 states faced tougher voting requirements in the most recent midterm election, the same election that saw declining minority voter turnout. And, unless Congress acts, the 2016 election will be the first in 50 years where voters will not have the full protections of the Voting Rights Act that so many lost their lives to obtain.
But just as black leaders in the Reconstruction Era and during the Civil Rights Movement persevered when confronted with opposition, black leaders in Congress are continuing to fight to restore the Voting Rights Act. As I have done every year for the past 20 years, this year, I, along with nearly 100 of my colleagues traveled to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the March in Selma. This year held special significance, because not only was it the 50th Anniversary, but it is a time when we are facing the exact same fight. History has indeed repeated itself and we find ourselves, once again, without full protections of our right to vote.
Currently, led once again by Congressman John Lewis, Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee and longtime advocate, John Conyers, and Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, three pieces of legislation have been introduced to resolve this urgent problem: H.R. 855, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, H.R. 2867, the Voting Rights Advancement Act and H.R. 12, the Voter Empowerment Act.
However, as we look at these bills we again see history repeating itself. The first bill, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, was a bipartisan piece of legislation introduced in 2014. Yet, similar to the Civil Rights Act, which had weak voting protections in an effort to obtain bi-partisan support, the Voting Rights Amendment Act faces the same problem.
At the time of its drafting, Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were not happy with this bill. Since 2010, we have been struggling against a Republican majority, strongly influenced by their most conservative arm, the Tea-Party. It has been difficult to get support for progressive legislation of any kind, in particular for voting rights legislation strong enough to overcome the damage done by the Shelby case.
Therefore, when then-Republican majority leader of the House, Eric Cantor, promised Democrats that if they kept the bill limited and bi-partisan, then it would come up for a vote, many reluctantly accepted under the philosophy that some voting protections are better than no protections at all.
Therefore, my colleagues introduced H.R. 855, which included Republican forced compromises such as an exemption for voter ID laws and enabling fewer states to be automatically covered under Section 5’s provisions. Despite these major concessions, however, the Republicans never kept their word and the legislation was never voted on.
Fed up with the Republicans refusal to keep their word, this year Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus decided to introduce legislation that would fully restore voter rights protections to our communities. What resulted was H.R. 2867, the Voting Rights Advancement Act. H.R. 2867 restores Section 5 by requiring states with 15 voting violations over the past 25 years, or 10 violations if one was statewide, to undergo preclearance and submit future election changes for federal approval.
This new formula would initially fully cover 13 states including Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. H.R. 2867 is decidedly better than the bipartisan legislation previously mentioned, H.R. 855, which only fully covered 4 states Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
The 13 states covered by H.R. 2867 account for half of the United States population and encompass most of the places where voting discrimination is most prevalent today, like Florida, North Carolina, and Texas.
Additionally, this new formula includes the Southern states that were initially targeted by the Voting Rights Act, where discrimination against African-Americans remains a disquieting problem, along with diverse coastal states like California and New York, which have more recently discriminated against ethnic groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans, reflecting the continuously changing demographics of this country.
Additionally, H.R. 2867 does not contain any carve outs for discriminatory voter ID laws, and also requires states to get preclearance for specific election changes that often target minority voters today. Therefore, states would need to get federal approval for things like new voter ID laws and proof-of-citizenship requirements for voter registration.
H.R. 2867 is currently co-sponsored by 88 Democrats, but, unfortunately has not secured any Republican support.
Lastly, Congressman Lewis has introduced yet another piece of voting rights legislation that, if implemented, would work to strengthen both of the previously mentioned bills. H.R. 12, the Voter Empowerment Act, serves as a comprehensive proposal to modernize the way we vote. This bill would update our voter registration system, allow online voter registration, require 15 consecutive days of early voting in every state, assist voters with disabilities and ensure the equitable distribution of polling place resources. Our voting system is in much need of technological improvements and there really is no reason why Congress hasn’t acted to pass this piece of legislation, but yet again, this bill has no Republican co-sponsors.
Congress is now in recess and will be away for the full month of August without strong voting rights legislation in place. The right wing conservatives are exercising their extraordinary influence over the entire Congress and the entire country. We are up against mean spirited, states’ rights conservatives who resent the growing power of minorities in this country and who are intent on creating laws and policies to curtail it.
Congress, under the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus, must do everything possible to pass and sign into law a credible voting rights bill to protect the gains so many have fought, sacrificed and died for.
This is no small matter. This is not just another ordinary piece of legislation that we are dealing with. We are dealing with the right of a people who demand and deserve justice and equality in this country.
Just as we saw after the years of Reconstruction, without protection at the polls, African Americans and other minorities are subject to tactics that will dismantle our voice in this country. While the tactics may no longer be Ku Klux Klan-enforced, they are no less effective, at eliminating the black vote and black legislative power. As history has shown, these tactics are not coincidental, but they have been a decades-long attack to ensure certain people are in power, certain voices are heard and certain interests are favored. We are up against the people like the Koch brothers, and rulings like Citizens United which both continue to build financial support to fund right wing elections and to serve the conservative agenda.
While the attacks against voting rights are grounded in pretty packages like states’ rights or voter fraud, history demonstrates that at their heart is the desire to prevent African Americans and other minorities from participating in the electoral process. This is unconstitutional, undemocratic and un-American. And I, with my colleagues in Congress, organized civil rights groups, faith based religious communities, college students, human rights activists and progressive women organizations will not accept any erosion of our rights. We are prepared to engage in whatever fight necessary and will not quit until we can restore voting rights protections for all.
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