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Public Statements

Right to Vote Under Attack

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. HOLT. I thank my friend from Texas, and I thank him very much for setting aside some time for this important issue.

You know, more than a century ago, the Supreme Court described the right to vote as the most fundamental right in our government because it is the preservative of all other rights. Indeed, that's true. And many years later, half a century ago, President Lyndon Johnson said that ``the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.''

The vote is the lifeblood of self-government, and it's one of the most powerful ways that citizens can affect change. The integrity of the electoral process is fundamental to ensuring that the voice of the people is heard.

I often say that a self-governing country such as ours works only if you believe it does. And we must make sure that every American knows that every vote counts, that every vote will be counted and that, you know, recognizing how complicated--it's not as simple as we would all like to believe--how complicated it is, that we, at the Federal level and at the State level, are doing everything we can to protect the franchise, to protect the franchise of each citizen to cast his vote. And it's not just that we want to protect this as a right; it's something we should desire for the sake of our country, that we get the diversity of opinion.

Well, what's happening right now is in State after State there's legislation that's intended to exclude some opinions, exclude some individuals, exclude some groups. Of course, this is something this country has seen in the past and worked diligently--yes, through Federal law--to correct. It was known as a poll tax. There were also literacy tests, quite clearly intended to exclude African Americans from not just their right to vote, but from their obligation and their privilege of voting.

What happens if laws are enacted to diminish the integrity and the accessibility of the ballot box for particular sectors of society? What happens if those disenfranchised voters typically vote for candidates representing one party?

Well, I came of age in the throes of the civil rights movement, when our colleague Representative John Lewis, then a young man who had been tapped by Martin Luther King, Jr. to become a leader in the movement, was beaten. I often say he's the only Member of this Chamber who had his skull cracked, literally, to try to earn the right for everyone, every citizen to vote.

In the aftermath of those bloody confrontations, Congress said there is a role for the Federal Government. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, and it's made an enormous difference.

But we can't sit back. We can't rest because right now, in State after State, there is effort to exclude some people. If you require people to jump through a lot of hoops, maybe not a lot of money, but spend some money, to me, that's a poll tax.

That is illegal, unconstitutional. We thought we had gotten away from it. We thought we had gotten away from so-called literacy tests where people had to jump through some truly unreasonable hurdles in order to vote, where prospective voters were quizzed to ask how many bubbles there are in a bar of soap. Hurdles that could not be crossed.

Well, you know, it sounds reasonable when you say you don't want anyone who's not eligible to be showing up to vote. But where are those people? In State after State, these ID requirements are put in place to deal with a problem that doesn't exist, and millions of Americans are being excluded from voting in order to deal ostensibly with this problem of fraud at the polling place.

Now, I don't doubt that in some ways, subtle or otherwise, there is some fraud. But I have not heard of a single immigrant coming across the border, walking through the desert of our southern States so that they could sneak in and cast a ballot some place.

There are tough laws and severe penalties for people who vote fraudulently in the name or address that is intended to deceive. But very few people have been caught doing that. There are very few examples of prosecutions or apprehensions or, for that matter, even suspicions of this happening. And yet all of these laws that are being passed are ostensibly to deal with that problem. It's a problem that doesn't exist in nearly 5 million Americans by estimates from such people as the Brennan Center of the law school at NYU. Five million people might be excluded from this.

So I thank my friend from Texas for engaging in this discussion tonight. Indeed, this is the right that preserves all other rights. What could be more important? It is cynical, it is disingenuous, it is un-American what people are doing in a very systematic way to exclude large groups of people from voting to solve a problem, an imaginary problem that's been trumped up. I believe it's been trumped up just so that they could exclude large numbers of people from voting.

I thank my friend for raising this critically important question.

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Mr. HOLT. I thank my friend from Texas.

The history of America has been a history of expanding the franchise, the opportunity, the right to vote. And it's based on this principle that we often talk about in this Chamber but maybe don't pay enough attention to, which is the principle of equality under the law. We're not just saying that, Yes, everybody can vote--well, unless you are disabled, and you can't get into the polling place. Or everybody can vote except, well, if you're 75 years old, 85 years old, you are no longer driving, and you have let your driver's license expire, and, no, you haven't gotten down to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get another one. Or we'll let everybody vote--well, as long as you pay a tax or if your grandfather voted or if you can cross these hurdles.

Our history has been a history of saying everybody is equal under the law. And we don't put artificial hurdles in place. The 15th Amendment said you can't deny African Americans the right to vote. In 1915, the Supreme Court said, The grandfather clauses are unconstitutional, which would outlaw exemptions from literacy requirements for voters whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote at the time of the Civil War.

The 19th Amendment said women can vote. The 23rd Amendment said citizens of the District of Columbia could vote in Presidential elections. The 24th Amendment outlawed poll taxes. And in 1965, as I referred to earlier, in the aftermath of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the Voting Rights Act was passed, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or language-minority status. It prohibits the use of suppressive tactics in various poll tests.

I could go on. The 18-year-old vote, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires equal access to voting places, the National Voter Registration Act, the ``Motor Voter Act,'' these are all based on the principle of equality under the law.

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Mr. HOLT. And continuing to answer the gentleman's question: Who cares? Why does it matter? My friend from Florida has talked about how millions can be disenfranchised, excluded by the photo ID laws. Additionally, State after State has made it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives. So people who are eligible, who should be voting, are prevented from or hindered in their registration. And hundreds of thousands, we expect, would be excluded because of registration drives. And there are other restrictions, too, that I will talk about in a moment.

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Mr. HOLT. So I ask the gentlelady, how many other patriotic Americans are going to be deterred from asking their friends, their neighbors--in this case, maybe students--from registering for fear that they'll be prosecuted if they don't dot the I's just right?

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Mr. HOLT. And then in other States--who cares, my friend asks--in other States, they're making it harder to cast absentee ballots. So that's going to exclude people.

You know, you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see behind this a purpose of exclusion. This is not, Oh, we're just trying to clean up the procedures here to make sure that it's all neat and tidy. No, this is deliberate exclusion.

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Mr. HOLT. I thank the gentleman.

So, as efforts are made to put hurdles in the way to require proof that is difficult or expensive to get, that is, if offices are closed, and open periods for absentee ballots are shrunk, and early voting is discontinued as it has been in some States--in fact, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have succeeded enacting bills that reduce early voting--all of this serves only to reduce the dignity of Americans by saying the principle of equality applies except for some people, some people as I said, who might have physical disabilities or might be elderly or might be low income.

But, more than that, it deprives us of a working democracy. The reason, the history of America has been a history of expanding the franchise so that we could have a more stable, productive democracy. We want everyone to vote. It makes this a richer country in every way.

I thank the gentleman for setting aside this time. I can't think of a more important topic to be debated in this great Chamber.

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