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Public Statements

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

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, the 15th amendment of the United States Constitution provides ``[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.'' In 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Congress finally began to enforce the Nation's promise embodied in the 15th amendment. The Voting Rights Act was designed to ``foster our transformation to a society that is no longer fixated on race,'' to an ``all-inclusive community, where we would be able to forget about race and color and see people as people, as human beings, just as citizens.'' The mere mention of this act conjures up profound images of the civil rights movement, a fight by many courageous men and women for equality and justice.

In 1965, Congress wisely decided to make the most significant sections of the bill permanent. The permanent provisions apply to all States equally. One section of the original act suspended all ``tests or devices'' that States used to disfranchise racial minorities. Section 2, which is also permanent, codifies the 15th amendment, confirming by statute that no political subdivision may deny or abridge voting rights on account of race or color and that all individuals have recourse to discriminatory election procedures in Federal court.

That same Congress passed temporary remedial measures to address voting practices and districting in seven Southern States, where registration rates for Black voters averaged only 29.3 percent. Section 5 was crafted to remedy the low voter registration and turnout among the minority communities caused by discriminatory registration practices and intimidation at the polls. Indeed, the Voting Rights Act has succeeded tremendously. Statistician Keith Gaddie reported that the registration and turnout rate of Black citizens is higher in covered jurisdictions than throughout the rest of the Nation. He additionally revealed that registration of Black citizens in Alabama during the 2004 elections was 72.9 percent of the voting age population; in Georgia, 64.2 percent; in Louisiana, 71.1 percent; in Mississippi, 76.1 percent; in South Carolina, 71.1 percent; and in Virginia, 57.4 percent of the voting age population. Voter turnout rates were equally improved. For example in 2004 Alabama had a 63.9 percent turnout rate of registered Black voters, Georgia had a 54.4 percent turnout rate, Louisiana had a 62.1 percent turnout rate, Mississippi had a 66.8 percent turnout rate, South Carolina had a 59.5 percent turnout rate, and Virginia had a 49.6 percent turnout rate.

If we applied registration and turnout data from our most recent Presidential elections to the trigger formula for coverage, many covered States would no longer require coverage. This is important because the Supreme Court requires that any laws that we write must be ``congruent and proportional'' to the problems we seek to remedy. While these provisions were necessary because State practices and the prejudices of individuals kept eligible citizens from being able to cast a ballot free from the threat of intimidation or harassment, it is important that we ensure that the correct jurisdictions are covered in order to preserve the constitutionality of the act.

We held nine hearings, and many individuals from diverse backgrounds and different races have both praised and criticized the temporary provisions of the VRA set to expire 1 year from now. At each hearing, multiple witnesses suggested ways to amend and improve this Act. Yet I was the only Senator on the committee prepared to offer substantive amendments to improve the act so that it addresses the problems it seeks to remedy today.

I was prepared to offer three amendments. The first would define the term ``limited English proficient,'' the second would reauthorize the amended provisions for 7 years instead of 25 years, and the third would require a photo identification in all Federal elections. Yet I only offered one amendment in committee yesterday because it was clearly communicated that we should pass the exact bill that the House passed regardless of the merits of certain amendments. In fact, even though the committee did pass a nonsubstantive amendment to amend the title of the bill, Senate leadership brought the House bill H.R. 9 to the floor without the title change accepted in committee. Political expediency clearly trumped the will of individual Senators.

There are other amendments that should have received consideration. During hearings, some Senators discussed possible amendments that they appeared to support with witnesses. Yet I believe that political fear and perceived intimidation prevented them from offering any amendments. For example, there was discussion based on the testimony of numerous witnesses that someone should offer an amendment to create more reasonable bailout procedure. States and counties wishing to bail out are only permitted to make their case here in Washington rather than at a Federal court closer to their home. Another amendment that received some support among witnesses would have included more recent data to determine coverage of areas with a recent history of discrimination rather than relying on data only from the 1964, 1968, and 1972 elections.

Even if no amendments offered were accepted, this bill is dramatically different from reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act as renewed in 1982. This bill rewrites the Voting Rights Act, section 5 to include in section (b) that ``[t]he purpose of [section 5] is to protect the ability of such citizens to elect their preferred candidates of choice.'' Such language has never before been inserted into section 5 preclearance requirements where there is no judicial review of determinations made by Department of Justice, DOJ employees. Additionally, section 5(c) of the bill rewrites the Voting Rights Act to require that DOJ refuse to preclear a plan that employs ``any discriminatory purpose.'' These are very serious changes that were never debated and that witnesses suggested we amend. Those suggestions were never even discussed or considered. I am at a loss as to why we are inserting new standards for 25 years without knowing the potential consequences and clarifying congressional intent in the language of the act.

Some Senators have said that we have carefully considered this bill and the effects it will have on our Nation based on the number of hearings we had. Yet Member attendance at these hearings was incredibly low. At the first two hearings on section 5, only one Senator attended. At the third, five Senators attended. Five Senators did not attend any of the committee's hearings. Five Senators attended only portions of one hearing. This is not meant as criticism because I only attended part of two hearings.

My point is that it is unfortunate that we insisted on doing this on an expedited basis when the act does not expire for a year. The committee conducted eight hearings in 9 workweeks--and during times when it was clear most Senators would be absent. We held four hearings during the immigration debate on the floor and held two hearings during rollcall votes on the floor. Because of the political nature of this bill and the fear of being improperly classified as ``racist,'' the bill was crafted and virtually passed before any Senator properly understood any of the major changes. For example, the bill that passed out of committee included a finding section before any hearings were held. No changes to those findings were made.

Furthermore, it was nearly impossible to prepare for the hearings. Our rules require that witnesses submit their testimony 24 hours prior to the hearing so Senators can formulate thoughtful questions. Over half of the witnesses--21 out of 41--flouted the committee's rules by turning in their testimony less than 24 hours before the hearing. Indeed, one witness submitted his testimony at 12:03 a.m. the morning of a hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Another witness submitted her testimony at 10:21 p.m. the night before a 9:30 a.m. hearing. Other witnesses submitted their testimony literally hours before the hearing. Clearly, the only way Senators could ask thoughtful questions of these witnesses was through written questions. And many tried to do so. But that process has been unsuccessful. We voted the bill out of committee for discussion on the floor before 107 written questions to 10 witnesses were answered and returned. We did not even have the opportunity to submit questions to the witnesses on the panel of the final hearing.

We had plenty of time to do this right--to fully consider the testimony and answers submitted by witnesses--and still vote to extend the temporary provisions before they expire in the summer of next year. We still have time to do this right. Congress has until the summer of 2007 to consider this bill, and yet we are moving ahead without receiving all answers to questions and fully considering the testimony of our witnesses. As a result, none of us can realistically say that we know the full implications of what we are voting on today. And the consequences of our rush, forced by politics, may have unintended consequences for our Nation.

Nonetheless, I am voting for the Voting Rights Act because of its unparalleled success in the past at securing the opportunity to vote. I urge my colleagues not to forget that we all share the fundamental American belief that our society should be color-blind and that everyone should be treated equally. There should be no political advantage or disadvantage because of the color of a person's skin and we should be able to put aside politics to protect and openly discuss those values. Most Americans would like to move away from considering race when drawing congressional districts. In fact, a Washington Post/Kaiser poll found that 70 percent of Blacks, 83 percent of Hispanics, and 90 percent of Whites said race should not figure into map-drawing.

While America has a long history of negative race relations, we must strive for the dream taught by Martin Luther King--that one day society will judge people based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. For this, as Justice O'Connor stated in 1993, is the goal toward which our Nation continues to aspire.

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