When I was a boy growing up in Texas, my family didn’t have much. We lived in a blue collar neighborhood in a town that was actually called “Humble.” There were no car pools, no soccer fields, and no talk of college. Most of the neighbors were Hispanic—as kids we played in the streets and on the banks of a nearby bayou. But on Election Day, people from my neighborhood, from my family, had the same power as every other person from every other neighborhood in America. This fact made an impression on me when I was very young.
Later in life, I was honored to serve as a secretary of state where I was given the opportunity of protecting the voting rights of all eligible Texas voters.
I realized, at that time, that my own respect for voting was not shared by everyone, that there was certain level of apathy among the people. I wanted to appeal to a younger generation, who might be inspired as I was.
One of my favorite memories from that time was appearing at a “Rock the Vote” event in Dallas with popular singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb. It was a great chance for me to learn a little something about what kind of music kids were listening to, and I was moved by the enthusiasm of the young people there – their passion for democracy. It really encouraged me about the future of our nation. My office also produced a Public Service Announcement, aired all over Texas, featuring children telling their parents why it was important for them to vote – how it was important for their future.
We also had kids write essays on voting and democracy for a statewide contest, and the winner of the contest came to Austin.
Because I felt so strongly about voting rights, it was disappointing in a way that one of the most common questions I would get—including from my children, but also from plenty of adults—was, “What do you do as Secretary of State?”
As it turns out, it’s a rare person who really understands what a secretary of state, or a state election official does. People are more likely to be familiar with the roles of a state Attorney General or a state Treasurer or a state Tax Commissioner. People may be impressed with your title but not quite sure what you do. And yet, in most states you stand guard over the very foundation of all the rights of America’s citizens.
What could be more powerful than that?
This right that you protect, every day, has always been rooted in the Constitution, although it required critical amendments, and those would come later: Specifically, the 15th Amendment in 1870, which granted the right to vote to black citizens, and the 19th Amendment in 1920 which extended that essential right to women as well.
Critical as they were, those amendments did not have the power to eradicate racism or sexism – as President Bush has said, “it’s a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart.”
More work would be needed. The Voting Rights Act, enacted by Congress 95 years later, bolstered the 15th Amendment. And, still, racism was not dead. Some hearts remained unchanged – but by then we had the essential tools, in government, to help those protected by the 15th amendment and punish those who offended it. And “We the People” became a phrase that truly did reflect the reality of America.
I appreciate the work of this group in applying the Voting Rights Act, and I appreciate your support of the renewal of the Act last year.
Congress used its constitutional authority later to enact another necessary federal law addressing the basic voting rights of our citizens: the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
In recent years, with so many uniformed services personnel serving in remote locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the Justice Department, in partnership with state election officials, has made it an even higher priority to monitor compliance with this law.
I appreciate all that this group has done, and will do in the future, to protect that right for our men and women in uniform.
As you well know, a more recent federal law, the Help America Vote Act, mandated the use of accessible voting equipment and other election procedures in federal elections. I appreciate that HAVA created a good deal of extra work for Secretaries of State, and I appreciate what a great job you’ve done under very short deadlines. We understand the challenge of creating and implementing a statewide database.
Similarly, compliance with the National Voter Registration Act has presented some … interesting … challenges for state election officials. The requirement to maintain “accurate and correct voter registration rolls” may sound obvious or simple to voters who rightly demand smooth-running elections, but you and I know that it is anything but simple.
Maintaining voting registration lists is a role you were meant to play in the structure of elections, and you are all up to the task, but I do appreciate how difficult it can be to make a single good, statewide list out of what may seem like so many different local ones.
In appropriate cases, as you may know, the Department of Justice will initiate litigation to ensure accurate voter registration lists, and I want to make sure that all of you know we do this largely to help you do your jobs. We have the ability to bring some attention to the problem. In some circumstances, that can really help work through whatever the state challenge is. We are then, hopefully, able to file an agreed consent order and resolve the suit. That is, obviously, our first choice for resolving these differences.
When I talk about voting rights to this group, I know that I am preaching to the choir. But I also know your jobs are difficult, and that we can all use reminders, every now and then, about how fortunate we are to be able to play a role in keeping our Constitution, and the founding father’s vision, alive for all Americans.
In preparing to speak to you today, I was reminded of the simple words of a President who was one of America’s greatest champions of personal liberty before being struck down by an assassin. Ironically, President Lincoln had once said that, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.”
Indeed, as we know all so well, the right to vote is the foundation upon which all rights are held, protected and elevated. It allows every citizen to speak out on and defend all of their other privileges. I like the way the Supreme Court has characterized it: the “preservative of every other right.”
Our fellow citizens sometimes take for granted the power of the ballot. They too often forget that it has proven itself, time and time again, to be stronger than the bullet … and that the founding fathers envisioned election day as the birth and re-birth of our government.
That’s why it is so important that all of you continue to work hard to encourage your voters to exercise their right to vote. I know that you feel strongly, as I did when I was Secretary of State—as I do now, that to squander that opportunity is to fail to take advantage of living in the greatest nation on earth.
The moment that a vote is cast is a powerful one. It is the best reminder to a citizen that we, the people, hold the power in our country.
A strong election turnout is also the best reminder to public officials that the people are their boss! We don’t need to engage in violent revolutions in this country. We hire and fire our government officials through voting – an act both utterly potent and utterly civilized.
People around the world who struggle against corruption and for broader and more transparent voting rights envy the purity and strength of that moment, the moment a vote is cast in a U.S. election.
When they wrote “We, the People,” the founders used the perspective of, the voice of, the People. Unfortunately, they left it to later generations to ensure that blacks and women shared in that voice.
That simple preamble actually gained strength over the years and still, today, shows very clearly that the power of this great nation does lie in the hands of the People, and is lent to their representatives via their votes.
The founding fathers felt it was important for states to manage elections – their own as well as elections for federal office. They believed that governments closer to the people are more accountable to the people.
This means that your jobs are really central to the founders’ vision, and I think it is extremely important for us to educate the public on the fact that elections are a state-level responsibility. After all, the more it is understood, the more the election process can be appreciated.
Whether it is combating fraud or keeping a good voter-registration database – your purpose is the same, and it is just:
To advance the will of the people … the very premise of American government.
Put another way: Protecting the right to vote and the integrity of elections is absolutely central to preserving what is great about this nation.
I am proud to serve with you when you need the Justice Department, shoulder-to-shoulder.
For example, last year’s uniquely challenging and important elections in the hurricane-devastated city of New Orleans were a triumph of state, local and federal cooperation. The challenges were many, the teamwork was outstanding, and the elections were a success. That’s the kind of work we know we are capable of, as a team, in every situation.
Databases. Lists. Voting machines that work. Again, this is behind-the scenes work … and I know that it is work that can feel like a burden when the mandate comes from the federal government.
But I hope that, no matter what the workload is for maintaining elections in your state, that you are always inspired by the great purpose of your jobs.
Because fair and democratic elections really do make our country special. This essential right, the right to vote, is also a privilege. It is precious and it actually demands our reverence.
In a speech to the NAACP last summer, shortly before he signed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the President told the story of Condoleezza Rice’s father, his struggle to register to vote and the pride that came when he finally claimed his full rights as an American citizen to cast his first ballot. This is a clear memory from our national Secretary of State – not a faded entry in a history book. These stories cannot help but inspire all of us.
You stand guard over a system that has provided hope and opportunity to generations of Americans – and, indeed, to people all over the world. As our pursuit of voting rights and protection against election fraud has evolved, our commitment to the founding values of our country must be renewed: liberty, equality, and justice for all should mean more to us each day.
I am proud of the work that you do to ensure that every Election Day rings with the echo of those early American words: “We the people.” We at the Department of Justice, are your partners in making sure the founders’ vision lives on – so we will continue to follow your lead. And, please, let us know how we can help get this incredibly important job done.
Thank you again for your service, and may God bless your efforts to keep elections truly open, fair and just.