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Statement By Senator Edward M. Kennedy At Judiciary Committee Hearing On Voting Rights Act Enforcement

Location: Washington, DC


The Voting Rights Act was adopted to address systematic and egregious discrimination that endured for over 100 years. We heard testimony yesterday regarding the unfortunate fact that in numerous ways, this discrimination still endures today. Laughlin McDonald, the director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project provided very recent examples. He testified about a TRO that was just issued last month to potentially discriminatory voting changes made in Randolph County, Georgia, that were not submitted for preclearance. Regrettably, it is not surprising that it may take more than 40 years to eliminate the "blight of racial discrimination in voting."

The Voting Rights Act combats the ills that are at the core of the 14th and 15th Amendment -- racial prejudice. While the remedy is strong, it is appropriate, given the fundamental importance of the right to vote and participate in the political process. As the Supreme Court has held, the electoral franchise is a fundamental right that is "preservative of all other rights." We cannot discard lightly the safeguards adopted in the Voting Rights Act, particularly in Section 5 of the Act. The progress we have made has been great, but it has not been complete, and we cannot allow it to be jeopardized or diminished.

Today we will be hearing about the Justice Department's efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act. While I have some concerns about the Justice Department's recent approach to implementing the Act, today we will hear from the Assistant Attorney General about the Justice Department's efforts, and the continuing need for vigorous enforcement. Section 5 has been the Federal Government's most effective tool against voting discrimination. Even after the Act was passed, there was a real and substantial danger that discriminatory decisions by jurisdictions covered by Section 5 would deny or abridge the right to vote. And in fact jurisdictions did adopt a host of voting devices and changes, some subtle and some overt, with the intent to shut minorities out of voting power. Some of those decisions had a discriminatory purpose, some had a discriminatory effect, and others had both. It was because of the work of the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Act that those invidious voting changes were not implemented, and that any progress in political participation was not undone.

Taking a long view, historically, the Justice Department has vigorously carried out its Section 5 responsibilities precisely as Congress intended it to. The record we will be examining, and which the House hearings examined closely, indicates that there is a continuing problem with discriminatory decision-making with respect to voting by jurisdictions covered by Section 5.

Today we will also hear from witnesses who will describe in more detail the concerns about continuing discrimination in some of the jurisdictions covered by Section 5 and Section 203 -- the minority language sections of the Voting Rights Act. As we have noted, compiling this record is one of the most important purposes of these hearings, and will provide a sturdy foundation for our actions in this most important piece of legislation.

In addition, we will specifically be hearing about the role that Section 203 has played in ensuring the right to vote and having that vote counted fully and fairly. Section 203 requires that certain jurisdictions provide for language assistance to American citizens who are limited in their English proficiency. Section 203 directly addresses barriers to voting for Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, and it too is a provision that should not be allowed to expire.

I thank the Chairman, and I look forward to hearing today's testimony.

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