Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Voting Integrity Symposium
October 8, 2002
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Today, we gather at a unique moment in America's history; a time in which the work of those who dedicate their lives to protecting America, our citizens, and our values has never been more important. One year and twenty-six days ago, enemies of liberty struck this nation, leaving us with two choices: to succumb to fanatics who seek to extinguish political and religious freedom, fanatics who would enslave women, corrupt education and kill Americans wherever and whenever they can; or to fight in defense of lives and liberties - in defense of freedom to speak, freedom to worship, the freedom to educate boys and girls, freedom to work, and the freedom from fear.
America has chosen to fight. And chief among the values for which we fight is our right to chart our own national destiny. The right of citizens to vote and have their vote count is the cornerstone of our democracy - the necessary precondition of government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Enforcing the laws that guarantee voting rights and punish voting fraud is the duty of the Department of Justice. More than mere law enforcement, our responsibility to protect the access to and integrity of elections is the responsibility of upholding freedom itself. Today, four weeks from elections that will determine one-third of the membership of the United States Senate and the entire membership of the House of Representatives, electoral accessibility and integrity are the urgent challenges of our democracy, and they are the reasons for this unprecedented gathering of the nation's justice officials.
America is a nation whose founding documents and most inspired words uphold the ideal of democratic self-government as a model for the world. The opening phrases of the Declaration of Independence declare that governmental power, if it is to be just, must be derived from the consent of the governed. The Constitution begins, purposefully and deliberately, with these three words: "We the people . . ."
These words have inspired millions of freedom seeking people throughout the world. But we cannot consummate - we cannot honor - the ideal of democracy with our words alone. Our actions demonstrate our commitment to self-government far above our ability to add or detract with mere words -- and our actions have not always been exemplary.
All Americans know -- or should know -- of the instances in our history when our deeds have fallen short of our commitment to democracy. For long periods of our history, America failed to grant African-Americans and women the right to vote. Later in our history, subtler but no less insidious forms of disenfranchisement occurred. Laws were passed that required African-Americans to take a reading test or interpret a passage of the Constitution in order to vote. Some people were not allowed to register to vote unless they brought along someone already registered who would vouch for their, quote, "good character."
And America has failed too often to uphold the right of every citizen's vote, once cast, to be counted fairly and equally. Votes have been bought, voters intimidated and ballot boxes stuffed. The polling process has been disrupted or not completed. Voters have been duped into signing absentee ballots believing they were applications for public relief. And the residents of cemeteries have infamously shown up at the polls on election day.
Political war stories like these are often told with a grin, but these failures of our democracy are no laughing matter. There is nothing funny about winning an election with stolen votes. And there is no occasion for mirth by the campaigns that commit these offenses. All of us pay the price for voting fraud. For when the right to vote is infringed, self-government is damaged. The national will is thwarted. The democratic ideal itself is assaulted.
The strength of our democracy demands that we fulfill the rights of both ballot access and ballot integrity -- to guarantee to every citizen, in accordance with the law, the right to vote, and to every voter the right to be counted.
So we come together today to renew our democratic compact with the American people. We gather here, in this Great Hall of Justice, to begin a new ethic of enforcement of our voting rights.
On October 1st, I issued a directive to all United States Attorneys announcing the creation of a Department-wide Voting Access and Integrity Initiative. Leading this initiative are Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, Ralph Boyd, and Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division, Michael Chertoff.
We have created this precedent-setting Voting Access and Integrity Initiative for two reasons: first, to enhance our ability to deter discrimination and election fraud, and second, to prosecute violators vigorously whenever and wherever these offenses occur.
- Our goal is to work cooperatively with civil rights leaders and state and local election officials to prevent election offenses and to bring violators to justice.
- Our means are a national mobilization of the resources of the Department of Justice.
- And our message is clear and unequivocal: the Department of Justice will investigate and prosecute voting rights and election fraud offenses.
To provide on-the-ground investigative and prosecutorial coordination, I have asked each United States Attorney to designate a District Election Officer responsible for the 2002 election cycle. These officers are experienced Assistant U.S. Attorneys whose mission is to help guarantee access, honesty and integrity at the polls on election day.
Today, we have brought together all designated District Election Officers for this day of intensive training in voting rights and election offenses. Throughout the day, these officers will hear from officials in the Civil Rights Division who are charged with enforcing the laws prohibiting racial discrimination and voter intimidation. Enforcement of the laws governing absentee voting for uniformed and overseas citizens as well as elderly citizens and citizens with disabilities will be covered in detail. And election officers will renew our commitment to providing language assistance to voters with limited proficiency in English.
The Civil Rights Division has already had considerable success, working with the Department of Commerce, in facilitating the capacity of all citizens to participate fully in the electoral process. Earlier this year, the Civil Rights Division worked successfully with the Commerce Department to secure the early release of 2000 Census data that will determine which districts receive language assistance. As a result, thousands of citizens in 80 jurisdictions who would not have received assistance before will be provided help in exercising fully their voting rights on election day. Fulfilling this obligation took extraordinary effort on behalf of Secretary Don Evans, Commerce Department staff and Civil Rights Division officials. I commend all of those individuals who made possible this enhancement of our voting rights.
Election officers have also heard from the leadership of the Criminal Division -- the men and women who supervise the enforcement of the laws against voter fraud. These experts have prosecuted dozens of cases involving voting rights abuses, and they will share what they have learned with those here today.
Tomorrow, our District Election Officers will take this training out into their own districts. I have asked each U.S. Attorney and FBI Special Agent in Charge to meet with state officials who handle election violations in each district, in order to underscore the Department's commitment to preventing - and, if necessary, investigating and prosecuting - election fraud and voting rights offenses. I am also asking U.S. Attorneys, Election Officers and FBI officials to explore ways in which the Department can work more closely with state and local election and law enforcement authorities to deter and detect discrimination, prevent electoral corruption, and bring violators to justice.
And on election day, the Justice Department will dedicate all available resources to ensuring access and integrity at the polls through our Election Day Program. This Program was established more than a quarter of a century ago to respond to public concerns about the integrity of the election process. When the polls open, every available resource of the Department of Justice - both in Washington and in the U.S. Attorneys' districts - will be available to handle complaints, open investigations and prosecute offenses. Every office will be open. All federal investigators and prosecutors will be on call to help ensure the accessibility, honesty, and integrity of the election.
In the past several weeks, I have met personally with state and local officials. I have met personally with leaders in the civil rights community and leaders of national ethnic groups. My message to them is my message to you: the Department of Justice will use all available means within the law to provide access, prevent fraud and prohibit the intimidation of voters on November 5.
This is our compact with the American people. Our role is to train, to educate and ultimately to enforce - when and if the laws are violated. Our pledge is to ensure justice for all American voters.
But we recognize also the indispensable role that states and counties play in the administration of elections. We appreciate and acknowledge the volunteers, the poll workers, and the state and county election officials.
All of us depend on the dedication of these Americans for the opportunity to exercise our voting rights - to make our voices heard in the great American commitment to democracy.
Today, it is more important than ever before that we embrace the privilege that makes us unique among the peoples, nations and societies of human history. Our way of life is not a given, and our freedom is not an accident. Liberty is a rare gift for which millions have worked and suffered and sacrificed and died. It now falls to us to guard this gift from those who would destroy it. It falls to us, the free, to ensure that the cornerstone of our freedom - government of the people, by the people, and for the people - does not perish from the earth.
Thank you very much.