Good morning, and thank you, Matt, for that generous introduction. Let me also say thank you to all of you for taking time to be here for this seventh annual Ballot Access and Voting Integrity conference. This would be an important gathering any year, but it is especially important this election year; you in this room – the District Elections Officers and law enforcement agents from throughout the country and others – will play a large role in ensuring that the elections this fall go smoothly.
A little more than a month ago, I had the privilege of welcoming more than 3,000 new American citizens during a naturalization ceremony in Florida. It was an inspiring event, not the least because here was a group of people – many from countries where the vote is non-existent or meaningless – swearing allegiance to a nation that counts as one of its proudest and most durable features the right to vote. In my remarks to them, I emphasized the importance of this right, noting that each of their votes counts the same as mine, and encouraging them to exercise their newly obtained right.
I emphasized the point because the right to vote is so fundamental to everything else. As Justice Black wrote in Wesberry v. Sanders: "No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined."
Elections, and the vote upon which they depend, are the bedrock of democracy. They are the principal way the people of this country hold our government leaders to account, and exercise our collective will. But we can do that successfully only if all of those entitled to vote are able to do so, and if all those votes are counted equally. And we can have confidence that the outcome of an election represents our will only if we have confidence in the process that produces that outcome.
In our federal system, of course, elections – even presidential elections – are administered principally by state and local governments. The Constitution provides that states establish the time, place, and manner for federal elections, subject to relatively minimal congressional regulation. Nevertheless, as the name of the Initiative that generated this conference reflects, the federal government – mainly through the Department of Justice – plays an important part in two ways.
First, the Justice Department has primary responsibility for safeguarding the voting rights of all who are entitled to vote. Congress has given us various tools with which to do that work, and we are using all of them. Chief among them, of course, is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most important and most successful pieces of civil rights legislation in our country’s history. Little more than a month ago, the Department won a major victory in court defending the constitutionality of Congress’s 2006 reauthorization of that Act, which remains the basis for much of our work today.
Through the Voting Rights Act, the Department ensures that Americans of all races, colors and national origins are able to participate effectively in the political process. We may all wish for a day when there is no need for such efforts, but as long as there remain American citizens without equal access to the ballot we will vigorously enforce the law on their behalf.
In just the last couple years, for example, we’ve won major victories in cases brought under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in Florida, Ohio, New York, Mississippi, Georgia, and right here in South Carolina. And between 2001 and 2006, we brought more cases under the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act than in the previous 26-year history of those provisions. These cases have produced real results. For the first time in its history, for example, the city of Euclid, Ohio, now has an African American on its city council. And as a result of our efforts, San Diego added more than 1,000 bilingual poll workers, and the city saw a dramatic rise in the registration of Hispanic, Filipino and Vietnamese voters in just a few months.
Beyond the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Division enforces several other important statutes that Congress has enacted to ensure that all citizens are able to register and that, once registered, they can vote. These include the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to make voter registration opportunities available when people apply for or receive public services; the Uniformed and Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act, which protects the voting rights of our men and women in the armed forces and American citizens residing overseas; and the Help America Vote Act, which establishes minimum standards for the administration of elections. Through its Criminal Section, the Civil Rights Division also stands ready to investigate and prosecute vote suppression or intimidation schemes that target victims on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this work – all of which is meant to protect the vote of our society’s most vulnerable members. And, although we don’t always get the attention or credit we deserve, our successes have been tremendous.
The cases filed and won tell only part of that story, since quite often a mere inquiry or investigation, or the threat of litigation, is enough to spur corrective action. After our lawsuit against San Diego under the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act, for example, Los Angeles County added, on its own initiative, more than 2,200 bilingual poll workers, an increase of 62 percent. And, just a few months ago, after we sent a letter of inquiry to Nebraska regarding its compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, the state passed a law increasing the number of its voter registration agencies.
The second part the Justice Department plays in connection with elections is in seeking to guarantee their integrity by combating campaign finance abuses and voter fraud. Since this Initiative was first launched in 2002, the Department, through the FBI, the Criminal Division, and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, has investigated hundreds of allegations of election fraud and campaign finance offenses. These range from old-fashioned vote buying and ballot forgery, to the laundering of illegal campaign contributions and other financing crimes. They range from the simple, to the maddeningly complex. But they all have the same goal: to corrupt the election process.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is an important law helping us in this work. It added new felony penalties for violations of campaign finance laws, established mandatory minimum fines for the use of conduits to disguise illegal contributions, and mandated strong sentencing guidelines for campaign financing crimes that are likely to result in jail time for most offenders. These laws, and the tough consequences they establish, are necessary to prosecute those who threaten our democracy at such a fundamental level and to deter others who wish to engage in such fraudulent conduct.
Although instances of such fraud appear to be more the exception than the rule, the consequences of undeterred and undetected violations are potentially enormous. We’ve seen how close elections can be – and the fraudulent votes of even a small number can, in a close election, invalidate the votes of every other citizen who participated in the election. Whatever the exact numbers, even the prospect of vote fraud may undermine the integrity of the voting process. In a democratic society, even the perception of corruption or fraud has a damaging effect because it corrodes people’s faith in the democratic system.
Our task, then, is to support the greatest possible access to voting rights allowable under the law, and simultaneously to uphold the integrity of those rights through strong enforcement. In recent years, some have tried to suggest that these goals – protecting voting rights and protecting the integrity of elections – are somehow at odds. But they are really two sides of the same coin.
If some of our citizens are denied their right to vote, that is a form of voter fraud, in the sense that the outcome of the election will not accurately reflect the popular will. Just the same way, if some voters engage in fraud, and either vote when they are not entitled to, or vote more than once, that dilutes the voting rights of all legitimate voters. Protecting voting rights and combating voter fraud both are essential to maintaining the confidence of all Americans in our system of government.
Also, as all of you in this room are well aware, there is no tradeoff between these efforts; that is, our pursuit of one does not divert resources from the other. The Civil Rights Division leads our efforts to protect the voting rights of all Americans, as it has vigorously for decades. The Criminal Division also plays an important role in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process. And Assistant U.S. Attorneys around the country, including many of you here today, provide indispensable help on both fronts. Unlike many a situation in Washington D.C., this is not an either or; we can, and we do, pursue both.
Although, as I just said, ballot access and voting integrity are two sides of the same coin, that shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging that there is sometimes a tension between the two. Take voter identification laws, for example. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court adopted the Department’s view that voter ID laws are not facially unconstitutional. As the Supreme Court held, in an opinion by Justice Stevens, such laws serve several compelling interests, including the interest in preventing voter fraud, and the interest in safeguarding public confidence in representative government.
At the same time, the Court acknowledged the undeniable fact that voter ID laws can burden some citizens’ right to vote. It is important for states to implement and administer such laws in a way that minimizes that possibility. And it is important for the Department to do its part to guard against that possibility. We will not hesitate to use the tools available to us – including the Voting Rights Act – if these laws, important though they may be, are used improperly to deny the right to vote.
This year, as I’ve already pointed out, and as any even semi-alert American knows, is an election year. One of my highest priorities in what remains of my tenure as Attorney General is to do what we can to assist state and local governments so that the November elections run as smoothly as possible, and that the American people have confidence that these elections are run smoothly.
We will do that using the enforcement tools I’ve already described. In addition, through outreach and monitoring, we intend to have a large presence throughout the election season. We will work closely with civil rights groups and elections officials to identify and solve problems in a timely and appropriate fashion. We will publicize telephone numbers, websites and other means through which interested citizens can bring potential issues to our attention.
And, just as we’ve done in years past, we will deploy hundreds of federal monitors to locations around the country on election day, focusing on areas where there are potential civil rights violations and jurisdictions where we have ongoing consent decrees. Our goal is to make sure that any complaints are dealt with promptly and appropriately, and to make our presence felt so that the American people can continue to have confidence in our system of government.
Because elections are, by definition, political events, there is an obvious danger in all this that we ourselves can be drawn into partisan territory. We have to do everything in our power to resist that, to ensure that each of our decisions is driven by what the law and the facts require, and only by that.
Earlier this year, I issued a memorandum to remind all Department employees of policies regarding election year sensitivities. The message bears repeating here – that politics must play no role in the decisions of investigators or prosecutors as to any investigations or criminal charges; that law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election; and that we must not do anything for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party. Those principles have even more weight in this area, and I am confident that you and others in the Department will follow them.
Regrettably, even if – as I expect – all of us abide by these principles religiously, we will be criticized. There will always be people outside the Department – from all parts of the political spectrum – who look at the law as a way to gain a partisan edge, and who call upon us to act or not act at least in part for partisan reasons. And there will always be critics – from all parts of the political spectrum – who accuse us of doing too much or too little.
It is our duty – to the law and to the people we serve – to disregard these pressures and criticisms, to pursue cases wherever the facts and the law lead us. Our single obligation here is to ensure that elections reflect the will of the people, and not to become weapons in a partisan battle.
Our nation’s record when it comes to the right to vote is certainly not perfect. It took a Civil War and multiple constitutional amendments to establish the right of all adult citizens to the franchise. As the men and women who took the oath of citizenship before me in Miami would tell you, however, today our country stands as a model of democratic government. Many of those men and women will vote in fair, free and meaningful elections for the first time in their lives this November. We owe it to them, and to all our fellow citizens, to do what we can to keep it that way.
You already do that every day. I thank you, and I know your country thanks you too.
Thank you very much.