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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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Location: Washington, DC


FANNIE LOU HAMER, ROSA PARKS, AND CORETTA SCOTT KING VOTING RIGHTS ACT REAUTHORIZATION AND AMENDMENTS ACT OF 2006 -- (Senate - July 20, 2006)

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, this is an historic day. In the quietness of the moment, on the floor of the Senate, we are talking about a major piece of legislation that is basic to the fabric of what America is all about. But the quietness does not belie the fact that this is a momentous piece of legislation that marks the continuation of this Nation as a true democracy.

I want, at the outset, to commend my friends and leaders on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Specter and Senator Leahy. I can remember talking with both of them early on about putting this on the Senate agenda, putting it on the Judiciary Committee agenda. There are not two Members of this body who are more committed to this legislation than Chairman Specter and Senator Leahy.

We are here today because of their leadership and their strong commitment to the concept of making sure that America is going to be America by insisting on the extension of this voting rights legislation. They have both been tireless during the course of the series of hearings that we have held. They have been meticulous in terms of determining the witnesses that we would have and in building the legislative record, which is so important and of such great consequence in terms of maintaining the constitutionality of this legislation, which is, of course, so important. So I thank both of them for their leadership and their generous references earlier during their statements.

Mr. President, the Constitution of the United States is an extraordinary document, the greatest charter that has ever been written in terms of preserving the rights and liberties of the people. Still, slavery was enshrined in the Constitution. And this country has had a challenging time freeing itself from the legacy of slavery. We had a difficult time in fighting the great Civil War. And we have had a challenging time freeing ourselves from discrimination--all forms of discrimination--but particularly racial discrimination. And we had a difficult time, particularly in the early 1960s, in passing legislation--legislation which could be enormously valuable in freeing a country from the stains of discrimination. But it takes much more than just legislation to achieve that.

I was fortunate enough to be here at the time we passed the 1964 civil rights bill that dealt with what we call public accommodations. It is difficult to believe that people were denied access to public accommodations--the ability to go to hotels, restaurants, and other places because of the color of their skin--in the United States of America. Mr. President, this legislation was debated for 10 months. Not just 1 day, as we all have today on voting rights, but for 10 months, the Senate was in session as we faced a filibuster on that legislation.

Then, finally, Senator Everett Dirksen responded to the very eloquent pleas of President Johnson at that time and indicated that he was prepared to move the legislation forward and make some adjustments in the legislation. We were able to come to an agreement, and the law went into effect.

In 1965, we had hours and hours and hours and hours during the course of the markup of the Voting Rights Act, and hours and hours and hours on the floor of the Senate to pass that legislation, with amendment after amendment after amendment. We were ultimately successful. And just off the Senate Chamber, in the President's Room--just a few yards from where I am standing today--President Johnson signed that legislation.

Now, we continue the process. It has not always been easy during the continuation and the reauthorization of the Act. Rarely have we been as fortunate as we are today with the time agreement and an understanding that we will consider this and finalize it this evening, in a way that will avoid a contentious conference with the House of Representatives that could have gone on for weeks and even months, as we've seen in the past. This legislation will go to the President's desk, and he will sign it.

There is no subject matter that brings out emotions like the issue of civil rights. That is, perhaps, understandable. But it is still very true. No issue that we debate--health care, education, increasing the minimum wage, age discrimination, environmental questions--whatever those matters are, nothing brings out the emotions like civil rights legislation.

But here we have a very important piece of civil rights legislation that is going to be favorably considered, and I will speak about that in just a few moments. We have to understand, as important as this legislation is, it really is not worth the paper it is printed on unless it is going to be enforced. That is enormously important. As we pass this legislation and we talk about its importance, and the importance of its various provisions, we have to make sure we have an administration and a Justice Department that is going to enforce it. That has not always been the case.

Secondly, it is enormously important that we have judges who interpret the legislation the way we intended for it to be interpreted.

We have, in this situation, a bipartisan interpretation. We have a bicameral interpretation. There should be no reason that any court in this country--particularly a Supreme Court that is looking over its provisions--should not understand very clearly what we intended, the constitutional basis for it. We need judges who are going to interpret this in good faith. That has not always been the case, and I will reference that in terms of my comments.

Then, we have to make sure we have a process and system so that, even if we have the legislation, and even if we have a Justice Department correctly interpret it, and even if we have judges correctly interpret it, we have to make sure there are not going to be other interferences with any individuals' ability to vote. That is another subject for another time, but enormously important.

We need all of those factors, at least, to make sure that this basic and fundamental right, which is so important, and which we are addressing today, is actually going to be achieved and accomplished for our fellow citizens.

Mr. President, we are, as I mentioned, poised to take another historic step in America's journey toward becoming the land of its ideals. As we all know, the battle for racial equality in America is far from over. The landmark civil rights laws that we have passed in the past four decades have provided a legal foundation, but the full promise of these laws has yet to be fulfilled.

Literacy tests may no longer block access to the ballot box, but we cannot ignore the fact that discrimination is sometimes as plain as ever, and that more subtle forms of discrimination are plotted in back rooms, to be imposed by manipulating redistricting boundaries to dilute minority voting strength, or by systematic strategies on election day to discourage minority voting.

The persistence of overt and more subtle discrimination makes it mandatory that we reauthorize the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act. This act is perhaps Congress's greatest contribution to the march toward equality in our society. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, voting is ``civil right number one.'' It is the right in our democracy that preserves all others. So long as the vote is available and freely exercised by our entire citizenry, this Nation will remain strong and our other rights will be protected.

For nearly a century, the 15th amendment guaranteed that ``the right 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,'' but it took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to breathe life into that basic guarantee. And it took the actions of many brave men and women, such as those who gathered at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and faced the shameful violence of those who would deny them the right to vote, before the Nation finally acted.

I'm honored to have fought in the Senate for the Voting Rights Act each time it was before Congress--from its historic passage in 1965 to the votes to extend the act in 1970, 1975, and 1982 and to strengthen it along the way. I recall watching President Lyndon Baines Johnson sign the 1965 act just off this chamber in the President's Room. We knew that day that we had changed the country forever. And indeed we had. In 1965, there were only three African American and three Latino Members of Congress. Today, there are 41 African-American Members in the House of Representatives, one African-American Senator, 22 Latino House Members, and two Latino Senators. These gains would not have been possible without the Voting Rights Act.

I recall extending the expiring provisions of the act in 1970. I remember extending it again in 1975, and adding protections for citizens who needed language assistance. We recognized that those voters warranted assistance because unequal education resulted in high rates of illiteracy and low rates of voter participation in those populations.

And I recall well extending the act again in 1982. That time, we extended the expiring provisions of the act for 25 years and strengthened it by overturning the Supreme Court's decision in Mobile v. Bolden. That decision weakened the act by imposing an intent standard pursuant to section 2 of the act, but despite the opposition of President Reagan and his Department of Justice, we were able to restore the act's vitality by replacing that standard with a results test that provides greater protection for victims of discriminatory treatment.

Finally, in 1992, we revisited the act to extend and broaden its coverage of individuals whose English language ability is insufficient to allow them to participate fully in our democratic system.

In memory of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and Cesar Chavez, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to support extension of the act once again for another 25 years.

Some have questioned whether there is still a need for the act's expiring provisions. They even argue that discrimination in voting is a thing of the past, and that we are relying on decades-old discrimination to stigmatize certain areas of the country today.

I have heard the evidence presented over the past several months of hearings, and I can tell you that they are just plain wrong. Yes, we have made progress that was almost unimaginable in 1965. But the goal of the Voting Rights Act was to have full and equal access for every American regardless of race. We have not achieved that goal.

In considering this bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee has held nine hearings and heard from some 46 witnesses. In addition, we have received numerous written statements and have voluminous reports from a variety of groups that have examined the state of voting rights in our Nation. We have explored every aspect of the expiring provisions of the act, and have all come to one inescapable conclusion: continuing discrimination requires that we pass this bill and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. The evidence demonstrates that far too many Americans still face barriers because of their race, their ethnic background or their language minority status.

Section 5 is the centerpiece of the expiring provisions of the act. It requires that covered jurisdictions preclear voting changes with the Department of Justice or the District Court in the District of Columbia by proving that the changes do not have a retrogressive purpose or effect. The act would reverse the second Bossier Parish decision and restore the section 5 standard to its original meaning by making it clear that a discriminatory purpose will prevent section 5 preclearance. Even under the weaker standard that has governed since the Bossier decision, the Department of Justice has had to object to egregious discriminatory practices.

The act as reauthorized also overturns the Supreme Court's decision in Georgia v. Ashcroft, restoring section 5's protection of voting districts where minority voters have an ability to elect their preferred candidates. This revision would preclude jurisdictions from replacing districts in which minority voters have the voting power to elect their preferred candidates with districts in which minority voters merely exercise influence.

The number of objections under section 5 has remained large since we last reauthorized the act in 1982. Astonishingly, Professor Anita Earls of the University of North Carolina Law School testified that between 1982 and 2004, the Department of Justice lodged 682 section 5 objections in covered jurisdictions compared with only 481 objections prior to 1982. In Mississippi alone, the Department of Justice objected to 120 voting changes since 1982. This number is roughly double the number of objections made before 1982.

Behind these statistics are stories of the voters who were able to participate in the political process because the Voting Rights Act protects their fundamental right to do so. For example, in 2001, the town of Kilmichael, MS, cancelled its elections just three weeks before election day. The Justice Department objected to the cancellation, finding that the town failed to establish that its actions were not motivated by the discriminatory purpose of preventing African-American voters from electing candidates of their choice. The town had recently become majority African-American and, for the first time in its history, several African-American candidates had a good chance of winning elected office. Section 5 prevented this discriminatory change from being implemented, and as a result, three African-American candidates were elected to the board of aldermen and an African-American was elected mayor for the first time.

Consider the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. It moved a polling place from a club with a large African-American membership to a white church on the other side of town, under the pretext that the church was more centrally located. We saw this tactic when we renewed the act in 1970. We didn't expect to see it again in on the eve of the 21st century, but we did.

Some have argued that there has been a drop in the number of objections in recent years. As the record shows, that decline is explained by a number of reasons. First, of course, was the Supreme Court's restrictive interpretation of the purpose standard, which we will correct today. In addition, the numbers do not account for proposed changes that are rejected by the district court or proposed changes that are withdrawn once the Department of Justice asks for more information or litigation begins in the District Court. Equally as important are the discriminatory changes the act has deterred covered jurisdictions from ever enacting, and the dialog the act promotes between local election officials and minority community leaders to ensure consideration of minority communities' concerns in the legislative process.

And, of course, there are matters that merit objection, but have been precleared by the Bush Department of Justice because the Department's political leadership refused to follow the recommendations of career experts.

The Department twice precleared Georgia's effort to impose a photo identification requirement for voting. The first time, the district court threw it out as an unconstitutional poll tax. That's right, a poll tax in 2006. In 1965, we fought the poll tax during the debate of the original Voting Rights Act. After the Supreme Court ultimately held it unconstitutional, we thought this shameful practice had ended. But the court found that the Georgia law was just a 21st century version of this old evil.

Georgia reenacted the law without the poll tax, and the Court still found that it unlawfully disadvantaged poor and minority voters, who are less likely to have the required identification.

Recently, the Supreme Court held that the Texas Legislature had violated the Voting Rights Act by shifting 100,000 Latino voters out of a district just as they were about to defeat an incumbent and finally elect a candidate of their choice. Once again, section 5 would have blocked this practice, but the leadership of the Department of Justice overruled career experts who recommended an objection.

The fact that the number of section 5 objections is a small percentage of the total number of submissions shouldn't be surprising. Jurisdictions take section 5 into consideration when adopting voting changes and many day-to-day changes are noncontroversial. What should surprise and concern us is the fact that there continue to be objections and voting changes like the ones that I have described.

It has also been argued that the section 5 coverage formula is both over and under-inclusive. The act addresses that problem by permitting jurisdictions where Federal oversight is no longer warranted to ``bail out'' from coverage under section 5. We have letters from two of the jurisdictions that have taken advantage of the bailout process explaining that they did not find that process to be onerous. So far, every jurisdiction that has sought a bailout has succeeded. For jurisdictions that should be covered but aren't, the act contains a mechanism by which a court may order a non-covered jurisdiction found to have violated the 14th or 15th amendments to obtain section 5 preclearance for its voting changes. As a result, the act's preclearance requirement applies only to jurisdiction where there is a need for such oversight.

The act will also reauthorize the provisions of the act that mandate the provision of election assistance in minority languages. In the course of our consideration of this bill, we heard substantial evidence demonstrating that these provisions are still necessary. The original rationale for enactment of these provisions was twofold. First, there are many Americans who speak languages other than English, many of whom are United States citizens by birth--including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Puerto Ricans. These Americans should not be denied the opportunity to be full participants in our democracy because of the languages they speak. They know they need to learn English to succeed in this country. That's why classes to learn English are oversubscribed all over the country.

Additionally, Congress concluded that many Americans--including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans--suffer from inadequate educational opportunities that deny them the opportunity to master English at a sufficient level to fully understand electoral issues and cast meaningful ballots. The nationwide statistics illustrate the problem. Only 75 percent of Alaska Natives complete high school, compared to 90 percent of non-Natives, and only 52 percent of all Hispanic Americans have a high school diploma, compared to over 80 percent of all Americans. We heard testimony that while many of these people may speak conversational English, they have been denied the educational instruction--often as a result of intentional discrimination--that would allow them to understand complex electoral issues and technical voting terminology in English alone.

Finally, it is crucial that we extend the guarantees of all of the temporary provisions of the act for 25 years. Twenty-five years is not a long time when compared to the centuries of oppression that the law is intended to overcome. While we have made enormous progress, it takes time to overcome the deep-seated patterns of behavior that have denied minorities full access to the ballot. Indeed, the worst thing we could do would be to allow that progress to slip away because we ended the cure too soon. We know that the act is having an impact. We know that it is deterring discrimination. And we know that despite the act, racial bloc voting and other forms of discrimination continue to tilt the playing field for minority voters and candidates. We need to ensure that jurisdictions know that the act will be in force for a sufficiently long period that they cannot simply wait for its expiration, but must eliminate discrimination root and branch.

The time has come to renew the Voting Rights Act. This historic piece of legislation renews our commitment to the fundamental values of America. It ensures that all of our citizens will have the right to play an effective role in our governance. It continues us down the path toward a democracy free of the blight of discrimination based on race, ethnicity and language. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: ``The time is always right to do what is right.'' The right thing to do is to pass this bill and the time to do it is now.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I thank our leader, Senator Reid, for his constancy in support of this legislative effort and for his encouragement to all of us on the Judiciary Committee. I thank my friend from Vermont for his kind words.

Earlier today, there have been comments by my friend--and he is my friend--in the Judiciary Committee, Senator Cornyn, and also with regard to particular provisions in section 5, and later there were comments from Senator Cornyn and Senator Kyl about an amendment offered by Congressman Norwood over in the House of Representatives. I think it is important that the RECORD reflect the results of the extensive hearings that we had on these different issues because it is extensive, exhaustive, and it is presented by the floor managers, Senators SPECTER and LEAHY.

Senator CORNYN suggested in his remarks that he wishes we had taken more time to debate fully some of the issues raised by the reauthorization. In particular, he said he wished more time had been taken to consider the trigger formula for section 5. As an initial matter, the Senate began its consideration of renewing the Voting Rights Act with the very substantial record that had been assembled by the House, which contained over 10,000 pages that were the result of by over 8 months of House Judiciary Committee hearings.

From our very first Senate hearing, Chairman SPECTER stressed the need to build a strong record in anticipation of challenges to the act's constitutionality. That's exactly what we did. We heard from legal scholars and voting rights practitioners. We held 9 hearings, heard from 41 witnesses, and received well over ten thousand pages of documentary evidence. That evidence showed, unequivocally that discrimination, including intentional discrimination, persists in the covered jurisdictions, and that the trigger is effective in identifying jurisdictions for section 5 coverage. Senator CORNYN joined a unanimous committee in voting for the committee bill, which retains the act's trigger formula.

Senator CORNYN also held up a map of the United States depicting jurisdictions that would be covered if the amendment offered last week in the House by Representative NORWOOD had been adopted, which would base coverage on voter registration and turnout during the last three Presidential elections. Representative NORWOOD had a full airing of his proposal and many rose in opposition, including Chairman SENSENBRENNER. The opponents of the amendment overwhelmingly carried the day.

Senator CORNYN said that the Norwood trigger would not appear to gut section 5. However, under The Norwood formula, the State of Louisiana essentially wouldn't be covered. Yet, there is substantial evidence in our record of ongoing and recent voting discrimination in Louisiana. Yet the so-called updated trigger formula would exclude this sort of jurisdiction from coverage.

Finally, Senator CORNYN and Senator KYL discussed the provision of the bill known as the Georgia v. Ashcroft fix, which clarifies the retrogression standard in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Georgia v. Ashcroft. The bill restores section 5's ``ability-to-elect standard,'' which was set forth in the Beer case. Under the Beer standard, ``ability-to-elect'' districts include majority-minority districts where minority voters demonstrate an ability to elect the candidates of their choice. Contrary to the suggestions of Senator CORNYN and Senator KYL on the floor, while the standard rejects the notion that ``ability-to-elect'' districts can be traded for ``influence'' districts, it also recognizes that minority voters may be able to elect candidates of their choice with reliable crossover support and, thus, does not mandate the creation and maintenance of majority-minority districts in all circumstances. The test is fact-specific, and turns on the particular circumstances of each case. As both Senator CORNYN and Senator KYL noted, the Voting Rights Act is not about electing candidates of particular parties. It's about enabling minority voters to participate effectively and equally in the political process.

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