PREPARED REMARKS OF
ATTORNEY GENERAL ALBERTO R. GONZALES
ANNIVERSARY OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and former colleagues. It’s good to be home. This library is a fitting reminder of the proud heritage of great Texans who have served this great Nation.
I recently had the unique opportunity to attend a naturalization ceremony for new American citizens in New York City.
Having visited Ellis Island, where countless immigrants have landed in search of the American dream, it was a moving experience for me to welcome a new generation of citizens looking for the same opportunity.
We often take for granted that we live in the greatest country in the world. America is a powerful symbol. People will endure any hardship, sacrifice everything they have, just to live here in the United States.
We are not only the land of the free and the home of the brave . . . we are the world’s greatest refuge for hope and opportunity.
But these privileges do not come without responsibilities. We are all called to serve. The rich inheritance of liberty that has been handed down to each generation of Americans – and earned by countless immigrants – requires a special commitment to stand guard during our turn on watch.
Those that have lived the American dream – who have been inspired by the hope and opportunity of this great Nation – also feel the desire to serve as others have before them. Maybe you’ve been taught, or coached, or nurtured by a special mentor. Maybe someone took a chance on you and gave you the opportunity to succeed. Maybe a mayor, or governor, or president brought you along by his or her side.
Your fellow citizens are lucky that good men and women – such as yourselves – have borne the sacrifices of public service. It is not always easy. But it is worthwhile. It is not always appreciated by others. But it is personally satisfying.
While you have enjoyed the privilege of serving others through government, the opportunity to serve comes in many forms.
Today, men and women in uniform risk their lives on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan so that we can continue to enjoy freedom here at home.
Today, police officers and fire fighters risk their lives to protect our neighborhoods and keep our communities safe.
Today, bankers and brokers and shopkeepers are helping to turn the engine of a great economy and improve the quality of life we’ve come to expect in America.
Today, the new citizens that I greeted earlier this year in New York City are helping their families, serving their neighbors, and contributing their own unique threads to the cultural fabric of our country.
But I told them that there is one more way to serve. I emphasized that with the privilege of American citizenship comes the special responsibility to participate in our democracy.
To those who may have come to America from places around the globe where democracy is as foreign as opportunity, this was both a welcome and daunting challenge.
It gave me a great deal of pride to know that this Nation is not only providing these new citizens with the chance to vote, but is working hard to continue to ensure that their right to vote is protected.
Later this week, we will mark the 40 th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act – signed by President Johnson. It has been called one of the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted.
In 1965, President Johnson said that, quote, “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.”
President Johnson could not have been more right. And that’s why we strive today to give every single American a voice in our democracy.
We all realize that it has not always been so in our Nation’s history. In the past, some Americans have struggled to have their voices heard – and their votes counted on Election Day.
We must never forget that forty years ago things were very different for people who looked like many of us here in this room.
Those that marched from Selma, Alabama to the capital in Montgomery knew how important it was to serve our democracy by voting.
Marching for the right to vote, they got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge – just a few blocks out of town – where they faced police officers, billy clubs, and tear gas.
They were stopped but not silenced.
They spoke loudly for their rights, wielded the power of morality, and influenced their government to change. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act just five months after six hundred determined African Americans faced down a history of systematic disenfranchisement outside of Selma.
Today, the power to vote is one of the greatest opportunities we share as Americans. Rich or poor…black, white, or brown…everyone’s vote counts exactly the same. On Election Day, we all have an equal voice, an equal chance to exert a measure of influence over the events decisions and that shape our lives and our Nation.
That’s why I am proud to celebrate the passage of the law that codifies these principles.
My opportunity to serve has come from a man you all know well – another proud Texan. President Bush is committed to the basic ideals embodied in this legislation. And his affirmation of equal voting rights is unqualified. He wants to ensure that every qualified person in every community of American citizens has an equal chance to not only vote – but also have that vote count.
That is the work of the Department of Justice – specifically the Voting Section of our Civil Rights Division and the Public Integrity Section of our Criminal Division. The President has directed the full power and might of the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act and to preserve the integrity of our voting process.
The Voting Rights Act has been enormously successful, but our work is never complete. For this reason, this Administration looks forward to working with Congress on the reauthorization of this important legislation.
As we work towards reauthorization, the men and women at the Justice Department have an ongoing responsibility to ensure that every American citizen’s voice is heard and their votes counted.
After all, the right to vote is the building block on which our entire Nation rests. The consent of the governed. One person, one vote.
The group of new citizens that I helped to swear in under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty understood this premise. It is a promise made not only by them – to vote – but made to them as well. We will preserve Americans’ rights – and the opportunities that flow from those rights. The ideals reflected in Voting Rights Act is another example of that promise – and it is one that this Administration intends to keep.
In the post-9/11 world, each of our precious rights takes on added importance. Just as we hugged our families a little harder on that terrible day four years ago, we must cling tighter to the valuable freedoms our enemies hate so much.
I have often warned of the danger of complacency in America in a post-9/11 world that continues to see examples of violence and terrorism around the globe. But this complacency is not only a threat as it pertains to security and the war on terrorism.
The very fiber of our Nation rests on the zealous protection of certain inalienable rights for every citizen – and we cannot grow complacent in the safeguarding of those rights.
To protect the fundamental privilege of voting – and ensure that all Americans can fully exercise this power on Election Day – we need not only to celebrate this important law, but work hard to enforce it as well.
When it comes to our rights on Election Day, the Department of Justice has two separate but equally important law enforcement responsibilities:
We are charged with making sure that each person’s right to vote is meaningful, both individually and collectively.
In short, our goal is to make voting easier and cheating harder.
For this Administration, our commitment to the first priority in a democracy – voting – has meant the swift and certain enforcement of all of the Voting Rights Act’s protections against impediments to participation in the electoral process. Particular emphasis has been placed on the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The Act contains clear and straightforward safeguards for the rights of Americans who speak English as a second language.
States, counties, and other jurisdictions are required by this legislation to translate election materials into the languages of citizen groups that have experienced a history of discrimination in voting.
All of the official information provided by states and counties to voters in English, must also be translated into the covered language.
All materials. All information. All elections.
In the past two years, the Civil Rights Division has undertaken the most extensive enforcement of the minority language provisions in the history of the Voting Rights Act.
This Administration has filed more of these cases in the last four years than those filed in the previous twenty-six years that the law has been applicable.
Lawsuits have a significant limitation, however: when a lawsuit is filed, insulting and illegal behavior has already taken place. Once we reach that point in the process, the damage has been done.
That is why at the Justice Department we seek to build a culture where people understand and respect our election laws. We want to stop infractions before they happen.
The good news is we have evidence that our enforcement and compliance efforts are working.
For example, in San Diego County, voter registration among Hispanics and Filipinos rose by over 20 percent after one of our suits was filed. During that same period, Vietnamese registrations increased by 40 percent. And right here in Texas – in Harris County – the turnout among Vietnamese eligible voters doubled following the Justice Department’s efforts in that county.
Many of the voters covered by the minority language protections of the Voting Rights Act are the same recent immigrants and new citizens I met in New York. I know they are looking forward to their first election day. I hope – and expect – that it will be one that welcomes their contribution.
In addition to securing access to the ballot box for every qualified American, the Justice Department must also be good stewards of the entire electoral system. It is our job to maintain the integrity of the system we inherited for future generations.
Elections in America serve a greater function than simply determining the winners of contests for public office. They legitimize the transfer of governmental power, they hold the government accountable to the people, and they provide the most effective means to effect peaceful political change.
To undermine this important and delicate balance is to rattle the foundation of our democratic system. When the power and prestige of public office tempts people to commit fraud rather than court voters, the Justice Department must step in.
To that end, my predecessor Attorney General John Ashcroft created the Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative. It’s a way for the Department to focus our efforts in this important area. The goal of this ongoing law enforcement initiative is to deter voting rights abuses and election fraud through education and awareness, investigations, and, if warranted, prosecutions.
Again, we would rather discourage crimes from happening – before infractions erode the public’s confidence in our system – than prosecute wrong doers after the harm is done.
Here is a sampling of the work we’ve done in this important area:
We’ve held training conferences for prosecutors from the United States Attorneys offices on the handling of election fraud and voting rights abuses.
We’ve increased coordination with our partners in state and local governments.
We’ve expanded the successful Election Day Program that allows the public to report complaints or suspected fraud to the proper authorities on Election Day.
And lastly, we’ve made enforcement of election fraud and corruption offenses a top priority for Department prosecutors.
Currently, one hundred and twenty four election fraud investigations are pending throughout the country – and sixty-one more have been closed after investigation – nearly all of them since we announced this new initiative three years ago.
These cases demonstrate that the Department’s Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative is working. It’s a balanced law enforcement effort to enhance voting rights and to prosecute election fraud…and I look forward to continuing the good work that has begun.
Finally, I pledge to you that under my watch, the Department of Justice will continue to aggressively protect each person’s right to vote – and just as important – preserve the value of that vote from those who would corrupt the election process.
In our representative democracy, every election – and every vote – is an example of the hope and opportunity of the American dream.
I know what it means to pursue that dream. And I know what it means to have my vote count.
Today, we stand guard over President Johnson’s legacy, a system that has provided that hope and opportunity to generations of Americans. As our pursuit of voting rights has evolved, so too has our commitment to the founding values of our country. And it will continue as we work with Congress to reauthorize the historic Voting Rights Act.
This Nation stands for the highest ideals of justice and personal freedom. I am proud to serve a President and in an Administration that shares those ideals and works hard to preserve them for every American. Like the marches from Selma, Alabama, we will not retreat.
And I am proud to lead a Department that is on the front lines fighting for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Thank you. May God bless you and your families and may He continue to bless the United States of America.