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The Voting Rights Act

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The Voting Rights Act

Senator Kennedy offered the following remarks at today's hearing on the Votin Rights Act:

"I commend the Chairman for holding this hearing on the key question of whether Section 5 is still needed today.

President Lyndon Johnson said these words in his message to Congress on the 1965 Voting Rights Bill:

"In our system, the first right and most vital of all our rights is the right to vote. Jefferson described the elective franchise as the ark of our safety. . . . Unless the right to vote be secured and undenied, all other rights are insecure and subject to denial for all our citizens."

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been one of the most effective defenses of that basic right.

For over 40 years, this provision has helped to sustain to the progress that was made by those who risked their lives and livelihoods in the Civil Rights Movement. It's an essential protection against backsliding by jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting. It prevents these jurisdictions from changing their voting rules without first showing that the proposed changes have neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect. As the Supreme Court stated in upholding Section 5 in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, "After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims."

The issue of whether Section 5 is still needed today has come up many times in these hearings. Although we bring different perspectives to this issue, each Member of the Committee wants to ensure that any legislation passed in this area gets it right.

We are mindful that the Supreme Court will carefully review the legislation we are considering under the standards it has applied in reviewing other civil rights laws in the past. In recent years, the Court struck down a key part of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act because it found the Congressional record insufficient. [Board of Regents of Florida v. Kimel] It also struck down one part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. [University of Alabama v. Garrett] The Court based its decisions in both those cases on its view of the sufficiency of evidence in the hearing record.

Congress has a special role in enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination in voting. As the Supreme Court has noted, we have broader leeway in this area than in others, because of the close link between the need to prevent discrimination in voting and the special goals of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

In the 1999 case of Lopez v. Monterey - which was decided after the Court made clear the need for a specific record to support legislation under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments - the Court acknowledged that "the Voting Rights Act, by its nature, intrudes on state sovereignty," but noted that "the Fifteenth Amendment permits this intrusion" to remedy discrimination in voting.

Despite having greater latitude in this area than in others, there's no question that we must make a clear record on any legislation to extend the expiring provisions of the Act.

So I thank the panel in advance for helping us evaluate the evidence, and I look forward to today's testimony.

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