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Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that I be permitted to proceed for 10 minutes and, following me, Senator Boxer be permitted to proceed for 15 minutes, and following her, Senator Schumer for 5 minutes.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection? Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, I thank the Senator from Oregon for his discussion of an important way of having accountability in voting. I must say that I saw how that works out in Oregon. It works well. It works brilliantly, as a matter of fact. People have a lot of time to be able to vote. They don't have to struggle with work issues or being sick or other things. They have plenty of time to be able to have the kind of transparency and accountability that makes the system work. There are other States where you are allowed to start voting early--in New Mexico and elsewhere.

It is amazing that in the United States we have this patchwork of the way our citizens work in Federal elections. It is different almost everywhere. I had the privilege of giving the graduation address this year at Kenyan College in Ohio, and there the kids at Kenyan College wound up being the last people to vote in America in the Presidential race in 2004 in Gambier, at 4:30 in the morning. We had to go to court to get permission for them to keep the polls open so they could vote at 4:30 in the morning.

Why did it take until 4:30 in the morning for people to be able to vote? They didn't have enough voting machines in America. These people were lined up not just there but in all of Ohio and in other parts of the country. An honest appraisal requires one to point out that where there were Republican secretaries of state, the lines were invariably longer in Democratic precincts, sometimes with as many as one machine only in the Democratic precinct and several in the Republican precinct; so it would take 5 or 10 minutes for someone of the other party to be able to vote, and it would take literally hours for the people in the longer lines. If that is not a form of intimidation and suppression, I don't know what is.

So I thank the Senator from Oregon for talking about the larger issue here. He is absolutely correct. The example of his State is one that the rest of the country ought to take serious and think seriously about embracing.

This is part of a larger issue, obviously, Mr. President. All over the world, our country has always stood out as the great exporter of democratic values. In the years that I have been privileged to serve in the Senate, I have had some extraordinary opportunities to see that happen in a firsthand way.

Back in 1986, I was part of a delegation that went to the Philippines. We took part in the peaceful revolution that took place at the ballot box when the dictator, President Marcos, was kicked out and ``Cory'' Aquino became President. I will never forget flying in on a helicopter to the island of Mindanao and landing where some people have literally not seen a helicopter before, and 5,000 people would surround it as you swooped out of the sky, to go to a polling place where the entire community turned out waiting in the hot sun in long lines to have their thumbs stamped in ink and to walk out having exercised their right to vote.

I could not help but think how much more energy and commitment people were showing for the privilege of voting in this far-off place than a lot of Americans show on too many occasions. The fact is that in South Africa we fought for years--we did--through the boycotts and other efforts, in order to break the back of apartheid and empower all citizens to vote. Most recently, obviously, in Afghanistan and Iraq, notwithstanding the disagreement of many of us about the management of the war and the evidence and other issues that we have all debated here. This has never been debated about the desire for democracy and the thrill that everyone in the Senate felt in watching citizens be able to exercise those rights.

In the Ukraine, the world turned to the United States to monitor elections and ensure that the right to vote was protected. All of us have been proud of what President Carter has done in traveling the world to guarantee that fair elections take place. But the truth is, all of our attempts to spread freedom around the world will be hollow and lose impact over the years in the future if we don't deliver at home.

The fact is that we are having this debate today in the Senate about the bedrock right to vote, with the understanding that this is not a right that was afforded to everyone in our country automatically or at the very beginning. For a long time, a century or more, women were not allowed to vote in America. We all know the record with respect to African Americans. The fact is that the right to vote in our country was earned in blood in many cases and in civic sweat in a whole bunch of cases. Courageous citizens literally risked their lives. I remember in the course of the campaign 2 years ago, traveling to Alabama--Montgomery--and visiting the Southern Poverty Law Center, the memorial to Martin Luther King, and the fountain. There is a round stone fountain with water spilling out over the sides. From the center of the fountain there is a compass rose coming back and it marks the full circle. At the end of every one of those lines is the name of an American with the description, ``killed trying to register to vote,'' or ``murdered trying to register.'' Time after time, that entire compass rose is filled with people who lost their lives in order to exercise a fundamental right in our country.

None of us will forget the courage of people who marched and faced Bull Connor's police dogs and faced the threat of lynchings, some being dragged out of their homes in the dark of night to be hung. The fact is that we are having this debate today because their work and that effort is not over yet. Too many Americans in too many parts of our country still face serious obstacles when they are trying to vote in our own country.

By reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, we are taking an important step, but, Mr. President, it is only a step. Nobody should pretend that reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act solves the problems of being able to vote in our own country. It doesn't. In recent elections, we have seen too many times how outcomes change when votes that have been cast are not counted or when voters themselves are prevented from voting or intimidated from even registering or when they register, as we found in a couple of States, their registration forms are put in the wastebasket instead of into the computers.

This has to end. Every eligible voter in the United States ought to be able to cast his or her ballot without fear, without intimidation, and with the knowledge that their voice will be heard. These are the foundations of our democracy, and we have to pay more attention to it.

For a lot of folks in the Congress, this is a very personal fight. Some of our colleagues in the House and Senate were here when this fight first took place or they took part in this fight out in the streets. Without the courage of someone such as Congressman JOHN LEWIS who almost lost his life marching across that bridge in Selma, whose actions are seared in our minds, who remembers what it was like to march to move a nation to a better place, who knows what it meant to put his life on the line for voting rights, this is personal.

For somebody like my colleague, Senator TED KENNEDY, the senior Senator from Massachusetts, who was here in the great fight on this Senate floor in 1965 when they broke the back of resistance, this is personal.

We wouldn't even have this landmark legislation today if it weren't for their efforts to try to make certain that it passed.

But despite the great strides we have taken since this bill was originally enacted, we have a lot of work to do.

Mr. President, I ask for an additional 5 minutes.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, on this particular component of the bill, there is agreement. Republicans and Democrats can agree. I was really pleased that every attempt in the House of Representatives to weaken the Voting Rights Act was rejected.

We need to reauthorize these three critical components especially: The section 5 preclearance provisions that get the Justice Department to oversee an area that has a historical pattern of discrimination that they can't change how people vote without clearance. That seems reasonable.

There are bilingual assistance requirements. Why? Because people need it and it makes sense. They are American citizens, but they still may have difficulties in understanding the ballot, and we ought to provide that assistance so they have a fully informed vote. This is supposed to be an informed democracy, a democracy based on the real consent of the American people.

And finally, authorization for poll watching. Regrettably, we have seen in place after place in America why we need to have poll watching.

A simple question could be asked: Where would the citizens of Georgia be, particularly low-income and minority citizens, if they were required to produce a government-issued identification or pay $20 every 5 years in order to vote? That is what would have happened without section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Georgia would have successfully imposed what the judge in the case called ``a Jim Crow-era like poll tax.'' I don't think anybody here wants to go back and flirt with the possibility of returning to a time when States charged people money to exercise their right to vote. That is not our America.

This morning, President Bush addressed the 97th Annual Convention of the NAACP after a 5-year absence. I am pleased that the President, as we all are, ended his boycott of the NAACP and announced his intention to sign the Voting Rights Act into law.

But we need to complete the job. There are too many stories all across this country of people who say they registered duly, they reported to vote, and they were made to stand in one line or another line and get an excuse why, when they get to the end of the line, they can't vote. So they take out a provisional ballot, and then there are fights over provisional ballots.

There are ways for us to avoid that. Some States allow same-day registration. In some parts of America, you can just walk up the day of an election, register, and vote, as long as you can prove your residence.

We have this incredible patchwork of laws and rules, and in the process, it is even more confusing for Americans. We need to fully fund the Help America Vote Act so that we have the machines in place, so that people are informed, so that there is no one in America who waits an undue amount of time in order to be able to cast a vote.

We have to pass the Count Every Vote Act that Senator Clinton, Senator Boxer, and I have introduced which ensures exactly what the Senator from Oregon was talking about: that every voter in America has a verifiable paper trail for their vote. How can we have a system where you can touch a screen and even after you touch the name of one candidate on the screen, the other candidate's name comes up, and if you are not attentive to what you have done and you just go in, touch the screen, push ``select,'' you voted for someone else and didn't intend to? How can we have a system like that?

How can we have a system where the voting machines are proprietary to a private business so that the public sector has no way of verifying what the computer code is and whether or not it is accountable and fair? Just accounting for it.

Congress has to ensure that every vote cast in America is counted, that every precinct in America has a fair distribution of voting machines, that voter suppression and intimidation are un-American and must cease.

We had examples in the last election of people who were sent notices--obviously fake, but they were sent them and they confused them enough. They were told that if you have an outstanding parking ticket, you can't vote. They were told: Democrats vote on Wednesday and Republicans vote on Tuesday and various different things.

It is important for us to guarantee that in the United States of America, this right that was fought for so hard through so much of the difficult history of our country, we finally make real the full measure of that right.

I yield the floor. I thank the Chair and I thank my colleague for her forbearance.


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