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Public Statements

Right to Vote Under Attack

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. I thank the gentleman for yielding.

It's really wonderful that the gentleman from Texas has organized this opportunity to have Members come to the floor and highlight our concerns and our commitment to protect the fundamental right and the very bedrock of our Democratic principles--the right to vote.

I am pleased to stand with so many of my colleagues who all share my deep concern over the organized, insidious effort now underway in many States to disenfranchise millions of Americans and to silence their voices in our democracy. These efforts are purported to combat so-called rampant voter fraud; yet no investigative effort to date has found voter fraud to be a major problem in our Nation, so no one should fall for this ruse. As my colleague from Florida just outlined, every American should understand and be concerned about the political disenfranchisement that is going on in many States, including in my home State of Florida. State legislatures are attempting to impose voting restrictions that are the modern day equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Now, let me be clear. The foundation of our participatory democracy, of our democratic society, is rooted in the right to vote, in the right to choose our elected leaders, to have representation in government, to have input on the major policies of the day--the right to have our voices heard. That's why more than 250 years ago we threw off the shackles of the British Empire that denied American colonists representation in Parliament.

The fight toward universal suffrage has been long and arduous, but it is a fight worth fighting. As May Wright Sewall, a leader of the women's suffrage movement in 19th century America, said:

Universal suffrage is the only guarantee against despotism. Just as those who came before us have fought to gain and retain the right to vote, we, too, must stand vigilantly against those who seek to limit it. Each time I cast a ballot, I am reminded that it is a right not to be ignored. Less than a century ago, the women who came before us were denied the right to have their voices heard. Women during that time were confronted by a wealth of arguments against our right to suffrage. Women did not want the vote or women were already represented by their husbands or--one of my favorites--a woman's place is in the house.

Well, I would agree with that last statement, if we're talking about the House of Representatives, with the note that a woman's place is also in the Senate, the Governor's office, and in all seats of government. The women who fought for my right to vote were beaten, jailed, ostracized, and tormented. But still, they kept on and persevered because they knew that the women of our great Nation should not be deprived this fundamental right. So, no, we will not stand by and allow anyone's voting rights to be threatened, not on our watch. And many of our colleagues also know this fight too well.

Despite the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, giving citizens equal protection under the law and the right to vote regardless of their race, African Americans still faced more than a century of overt voter suppression. And while we made huge gains with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a seminal moment in our Nation's history where we declared that truly no election law can deny or abridge voting rights because of race or color, we cannot afford to sit back and just declare the fight over.

The struggle for universal suffrage is not over. We cannot allow State legislatures to drag our Nation backwards in what is nothing more than a political quest to protect their governing majority's interests.

A little more than 10 years ago, Florida experienced election day turmoil that reminded us all how important it is to remain on guard against disenfranchisement. The many irregularities that occurred in my home State during the 2000 elections were a painful reminder of how rights can be denied.

The Commission on Civil Rights report on the 2000 election in Florida found ``widespread voter disenfranchisement.'' As Commissioner Chairperson Mary Frances Berry stated at the time, ``It is not a question of a recount or even an accurate count, but more pointedly the issue is those whose exclusion from the right to vote amounted to a `no count.' ''

In the last year, scores of States, including Florida, have passed laws restricting access to the polls. A recent Brennan Center report found that these changes in State voting laws will likely suppress the vote of more than 5 million voters nationwide. We need look no further than my own home State of Florida to see the threat against universal suffrage. The Florida law passed last spring restricts both voter registration and voting opportunities. It was championed by Governor Rick Scott and passed by the Republican-led legislature which has overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.

First, it restricts the ability of nonpartisan organizations or individuals from helping citizens register to vote. It fines people in groups up to $1,000 per voter if registration isn't turned in within 48 hours. Just the other day, a teacher was sanctioned and is now being prosecuted because she didn't turn in her students' voter registrations within the new amended time frame that voter registration cards have to be turned in. And now she is being subjected to a significant fine per vote.

As a result of this law, the League of Women Voters, a champion of nonpartisan voting rights for over seven decades, has suspended its voter registration operations in Florida because they can't take the risk to think that they would be bankrupted by this absolutely unfair, terrible law.

Second, the Florida law rolls back early voting opportunities, including the Sunday before an election. It eliminates voting on the Sunday before an election. And I can tell you firsthand how important weekend early voting is for the thousands of seniors who live in my district and for millions all across the State.

Also in 2008, African Americans and Hispanics, who together make up roughly one-quarter of Florida voters, accounted for more than half of all voters on the final Sunday of early voting. So do we think it's a coincidence that that group of voters, which voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, now suddenly has their right to vote on that particular Sunday removed from them?

As far as we have come in our society in broadening the scope of civil rights, we cannot afford to revert to a time when it was acceptable to limit the rights of a select few. We are not meant to have a government of some people, by some people, for some people. I hope my colleagues will join me in ensuring that we uphold President Abraham Lincoln's democratic ideal of government for all the people, elected by all the people.

I thank the gentleman from Texas for the opportunity to speak tonight.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Thank you.

In answer to the gentleman from Texas' question, what's wrong with it, is this is supposed to be a country that affords everyone--regardless of any category that you fall into--the opportunity to vote. The voter suppression laws that have been passed by Republican legislatures, championed by Republican Governors across the country, have systematically targeted specific groups of individuals based on their propensity to vote differently than the legislators who support those laws would like to see them vote.

In other words, they are essentially blocking access to the polls for people who vote against their interests, against Republican interests. Blocking anyone's access to the polls is unacceptable to begin with, but insidiously trying to influence the outcome of an election through systematically changing the law to prevent people who are likely to go to the polls to vote for your opponent is the most heinous form of antidemocratic policy. I mean, it's the kind of policy that you would see in countries that we abhor, countries that we criticize.

For example, let's take the photo ID laws, and we have a photo ID law in Florida. There are photo ID laws across the country. You may have told the story about the 96-year-old woman from Tennessee. I'm sure you've already talked about that this evening. If you look at the statistics, which you may have gone over as well, 11 percent of Americans don't have a photo ID--11 percent. Twenty-five percent of African Americans don't have a photo ID, and I don't know the number, I was looking for the statistic for Hispanics.

It is unacceptable to say that the only way you can identify somebody is by requiring them to carry a photo identification in order to vote. That's just ridiculous. Modern technology today allows for signature matches. All of our supervisors of elections have the signatures on file either in the old-fashioned way, written on a piece of paper, or scanned into a computer where they can match the signatures. That's how they have done it for many years in Florida until they imposed the photo ID law. All photo ID laws are an obstacle in the path of an individual who is more likely to go and vote for someone who is not a Republican. I'm sorry, elections should be won fair and square.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. I just want to tell a story on that very specific restriction. We had the Republican secretary of state in Florida recently ask the attorney general to start assessing $50 fines for each of the 76 voter registration applications that were submitted by a high school teacher in Santa Rosa County. There was no indication of foul play. The applications were of individuals who appeared to be eligible Florida voters. They were high school kids who were 18 and were eligible to vote. But because Florida has changed the law under the Republican voter suppression law that requires registration to be turned in within 48 hours, and it used to be 10 days, this teacher got fined because she was trying to help her students register to vote and didn't get them in under the new time limit.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Exactly. The League of Women Voters in my State, Mr. Holt, has registered voters in Florida for seven decades and suspended their voter registration activity after this law passed because they can't take the risk. The organization would become bankrupt. Can you imagine, the League of Women Voters no longer registers people to vote in the State of Florida.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Thank you.

Because in some States it's equally as bad. It is certainly bad enough in Texas they're not putting more funding in to make sure those people have more access to get those photo IDs. But in some States, because of the budget cuts, they're systematically, in communities that have large African American populations and large Hispanic populations, shutting down driver's license offices, so it's even harder for those communities to go and get a photo ID.

This has been insidious. The disturbing thing about this is that it's clear that these Republican legislatures, led by Republican Governors, just don't think that they can win an election on the merits. And so they need an insurance policy because, in the event voters actually decide that no, Republicans aren't interested in creating jobs, no, they're not interested in getting the economy turned around, and, gee, maybe I'd like to actually go to the polls and vote for the candidate of my choice, they are using the insurance policy of voter suppression laws to make sure that people who are likely to go to the polls and vote for someone other than them can't do it. It's un-American. It's unacceptable.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. I thank the gentleman for yielding, and thank you for the opportunity for calling us together on this very important topic. I just want to close out my time very briefly by saying to the gentlemen from Texas and New Jersey that we are not going to lay down and just allow these laws to stand, that there are civil rights organizations, as we speak, pursuing these laws because we know that they are violations of people's, of individuals' constitutional rights.

We know they are violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We know that the Justice Department is reviewing many of these laws because they have to be precleared under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So people should know that while we are here expressing grave concern, we are certainly not only using our voices to fight these insidious laws; we are standing up for the franchise, standing up for the right to vote and making sure that, as Democrats, we go to bat to make sure every eligible voter has an opportunity to cast their vote for the person that is the individual that they want to represent them in this representative democracy. We are standing against individuals who try to fix the outcome of elections by blocking people's access to the polls.

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