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Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


FANNIE LOU HAMER, ROSA PARKS, AND CORETTA SCOTT KING VOTING RIGHTS ACT REAUTHORIZATION AND AMENDMENTS ACT OF 2006

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Mr. CHABOT. Mr. Chairman, I want to thank Chairman Sensenbrenner and Ranking Member Conyers for their leadership in getting us to where we are today.

Mr. Chairman, the right to vote is one of the most fundamental and essential rights that we have as citizens. Free, prosperous nations like ours can't exist without ensuring the right of every citizen to vote. It is the cornerstone of democracy and the centerpiece of the Constitution.

Clearly, the right to vote is important to all of us, regardless of our race, religion, or ethnicity. This is reflected in the protection afforded by the 15th amendment which states: ``The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.''

To protect these rights, our government must ensure that elections in the country reflect the will of the people. The Voting Rights Act is an important part of that guarantee.

The Voting Rights Act is now 40 years old. It is viewed as one of the most significant pieces of legislation to address voting rights. It was enacted after the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, erupted in violence, and that march is now referred to as Bloody Sunday.

President Johnson then pledged to address the issue, and 5 months later the Voting Rights Act was adopted by the Congress of the United States. In his address to Congress, President Johnson stated: ``The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and defend the Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.''

As elected officials of this body, we must now act again to continue to uphold that duty and ensure that the protections guaranteed in the Constitution are afforded to all citizens regardless of skin color.

For that reason, we have given this issue more time and more attention than any single issue since I became chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Judiciary Committee 6 years ago.

Starting in October last year, the Subcommittee on the Constitution held 12 hearings and heard testimony from 47 witnesses to examine the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and we generated more than 12,000 pages of testimony. Our goal was to be flexible, fair, inclusive, and perhaps most importantly, bipartisan, because as Mr. Conyers eloquently stated near the end of our hearings, civil rights need not be a partisan issue.

Mr. Chairman, it is important to note that we examined in great deal each of the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act currently set to expire. The extensive testimony from a large number of diverse organizations demonstrated a clear need to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

With regard to section 5 and section 203, we held multiple hearings to ensure that all of the relevant issues were examined and that they were also addressed. This past March, we held another hearing to incorporate into the record a series of State and national reports that provided additional documentation about the continuing need for the Voting Rights Act's temporary provisions.

Today, we have before us H.R. 9, the Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006, the product of the Committee on the Judiciary's work over the last 8 months.

I would like to thank my colleagues and those organizations who have worked with us from the start for their dedication to get us where we are today. Without a commitment by all interested parties to openness and cooperation, we would not be in a position to reauthorize this historic legislation.

As has been stated, H.R. 9 extends the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act for an additional 25 years. In addition, the legislation makes changes to certain provisions, including restoring the original purpose of section 5. In reauthorizing the temporary provisions, the committee heard from several witnesses who testified about voter discrimination in covered jurisdictions.

It is also important to take a minute to touch on the constitutional questions regarding the reauthorizations of the temporary provisions. The Supreme Court in South Carolina v. Katzenbach and later in the City of Rome v. United States upheld Congress's broad authority under section 2 of the 15th amendment to use the temporary provisions to address the problem of racial discrimination in voting in certain jurisdictions. With H.R. 9, Congress is simply using its authority under section 2 to ensure that every citizen in this country has the right to vote.

In addition to reauthorizing, the committee found it necessary to make certain changes to ensure that the provisions of the Voting Rights Act remain effective.

For example, testimony received by the committee indicates that Federal examiners have not been used in the last 20 years, but Federal observers continue to provide vital oversight. H.R. 9 strikes the Federal examiner provision while retaining the authority of the Attorney General to assign Federal observers to cover jurisdictions over the next 25 years.

In addition, H.R. 9 provides for the recovery of expert costs as part of the attorneys' fees. This change brings the Voting Rights Act in line with current civil rights laws, which already allow for the recovery of such costs.

H.R. 9 also seeks to restore the original purpose to section 5. Beginning in 2000, the Supreme Court in Reno v. Bossier Parish, and later in 2003, in the case of Georgia v. Ashcroft, issued decisions that significantly altered section 5. H.R. 9 clarifies Congress's original intent with regard to section 5.

Mr. Chairman, as we continue to face threats from terrorists bent on destroying democracy in the free world, every Member of Congress and every freedom-loving person in the world recognizes the power of the right to vote. Again and again, we have seen how people are forced to live in countries without democracy and without freedom. That is why our commitment to self-government, freedom, and liberty continues to set an example for the rest of the world. That is why our efforts to continue to protect every citizen's right to vote are so important, and that is why we must support the legislation which is before us today.

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Mr. CHABOT. Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to this amendment.

Under the gentleman's amendment, which would utilize election data from 1996 and 2000 and 2004 Presidential election data, as the chairman mentioned, the only State that would be fully covered under the preclearance and Federal observer provisions of the Voting Rights Act would be the State of Hawaii. Not only does this undermine the policy of protecting minority voters who have been historically discriminated against, the central crux behind the Voting Rights Act, but it threatens the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act and the progress made by minority voters over the last 40 years. And that is one of the principal things that the Subcommittee on the Constitution looked at and why we took so much testimony on this issue because we want to make sure that this stands up if there is a challenge in the Supreme Court, and there probably will be.

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act sets forth a formula under which certain jurisdictions are subjected to voting rule preclearance and Federal observer requirements. While the formula utilizes neutral registration and turnout data from the 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections, coverage is really about the documented history of discriminatory practices which is reflected in the first prong of the coverage formula that brings jurisdictions that maintain prerequisites for voting or registration under the scrutiny of the Federal Government.

Examples of such discriminatory practices include that minorities, one, demonstrate the ability to read, write, understand or interpret any matter; two, demonstrate any education achievement or knowledge of any particular subject; three, possess good moral character; or, four, prove qualifications by the voucher of registered voters of members of any other class.

I can tell you firsthand that the testimony gathered during the 12 hearings, which is reflected in more than 12,000 pages of record, demonstrates a continued need for the preclearance and Federal observer provisions.

The Norwood amendment, without any historical basis, would revise the coverage formula which has been upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 1999 in Lopez v. Monterey County.

In one amendment, the underlying policy of the Voting Rights Act would be put at risk; and the constitutionality of the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act would be threatened, jeopardizing the protections for minority voters and thereby possibly jeopardizing the advances in voting rights that the Voting Rights Act has facilitated to date.

I strongly urge my colleagues to oppose this amendment

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Mr. CHABOT. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman for yielding, and I rise in opposition to this amendment.

The Voting Rights Act should be reauthorized for another 25 years and not a 10-year renewal that is recommended in this amendment. That is just too short a period of time.

The reauthorization process for the Voting Rights Act is not a quick one. In fact, for the last 9 months, the subcommittee that I have the privilege to chair, the Subcommittee on the Constitution, has spent 8 to 9 months and been really immersed in these hearings to establish a significant record so the renewal will pass constitutional muster.

As I said before, we have spent more time on this particular issue than any other issue that we have been involved in in the 6 years that I have had the privilege to chair that particular subcommittee. And I fear that a shorter reauthorization period could jeopardize the act by not allowing both Congress and the civil rights community to study the impact and need for the act.

In addition, traditionally, redistricting has occurred on the State level every 10 years, and if the Voting Rights Act is also reauthorized every 10 years, it makes this process even more burdensome and gives States less of an incentive to comply with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

The Subcommittee on the Constitution has established the need for renewing the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, evidence like the more than 700 voting changes that have been determined to be discriminatory since 1982 as further proof of this need.

This amendment not only jeopardizes the carefully crafted bipartisan bill that has been offered, but could diminish its impact and, most importantly, its ability to withstand constitutional scrutiny. That is one of the chief challenges that we face, why we went into such detail, why we had so many witnesses, why we had 12,000 pages of testimony; because we know that it is likely that there will be a constitutional challenge.

So I would urge my colleagues to oppose this amendment.

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Mr. CHABOT. I thank the chairman for yielding.

I, first of all, want to indicate that I rise in opposition to this amendment.

First, what are the existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act that this particular amendment applies to? Well, the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act require jurisdictions with documented histories of unconstitutional practices to preclear voting changes with the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court here in Washington, DC, District of Columbia.

These provisions also authorize the Department of Justice to assign Federal observers to monitor elections in covered jurisdictions to protect the rights of minority voters. Together, these provisions have been crucial to the success of the Voting Rights Act and the progress made by minority voters over the last 40 years.

The current provisions of the Voting Rights Act strike the right balance expanding and contracting coverage as necessary. In fact, 11 jurisdictions have successfully bailed out from coverage while other jurisdictions have been brought under the watch of the Federal courts.

Now, the amendment offered by the gentleman from Georgia would alter the balance contemplated by the Voting Rights Act and that is maintained by H.R. 9, the bill that we have before us.

Under the gentleman's amendment, the Department of Justice would be affirmatively required to conduct investigations into the bailout status of the approximately 900 covered jurisdictions and to announce the results of its investigation annually, thus diverting precious resources away from its administration and enforcement responsibilities under sections 5 and 203.

Not only would this amendment shift the burden of bailout from the covered jurisdiction to the Attorney General, but the amendment would render the Department of Justice ineffective in performing any of its responsibilities under the Voting Rights Act, to the detriment of minority voters in this country.

Under this amendment, minority voters would no longer be able to rely on the protections and enforcement actions undertaken by the Department to enforce voting rights laws. Rather, the Department would be visiting each and every covered jurisdiction to review voluminous records to determine which voting law changes the jurisdiction has complied with and which ones they have not, 900 jurisdictions.

In addition, this amendment has the effect of creating an unprecedented and what could be considered unconstitutional amount of authority to the Department of Justice to determine which jurisdictions should be removed from coverage. This is unprecedented voting rights policy that has the potential to undermine the most important civil rights law in our history.

H.R. 9 is bipartisan legislation, and I would urge my colleagues to maintain the bipartisanship and oppose this amendment.

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