Thank you, Congressman Cleaver. It is a privilege to join with you – and with Dr. Richardson and Dr. Burton – in opening the 2012 Consultation. And I want to thank you for your kind words, for your leadership and partnership, and – of course – for your prayers. Please, keep them coming. Let me also thank the members and supporters of the Conference of National Black Churches and the Congressional Black Caucus for your work in bringing us all together today – and bringing renewed attention to the growing need to protect the voting rights of every eligible citizen.
It is a pleasure to be part of this discussion – and to be among so many friends, allies, and dedicated leaders. I am grateful, in particular, for the opportunity to salute the important work that the people in this room are doing each day – all across the country – to enrich our communities and to improve lives.
Since its official establishment in 2009, CNBC’s efforts have reached more than 10 million people. And, in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus – a group that, over the last 40 years, has established itself as the “Conscience of Congress” – you have emerged as a powerful force for positive change. Together, your organizations are not only providing a voice for the most vulnerable among us, you are shining a light on the problems we must solve and the promises that we must fulfill.
In so many different ways – in classrooms and courtrooms, in houses of worship and halls of justice, and in your own homes and neighborhoods – you are working to protect the progress that has marked our nation’s past, and to strengthen its future. And your efforts honor America’s most noble and enduring cause – of security, opportunity, and justice for all.
Despite all that you’ve done to advance this cause – and the transformative progress that many of us have witnessed within our own lifetimes – as you know, this is no time to become complacent. Yes, we have walked far on the long road toward freedom – but we have not yet reached the Promised Land. And, in too many places, it’s painfully clear that our nation’s long struggle to overcome injustice, to eliminate disparities, to bridge long-standing divisions, to eradicate violence, and to uphold the civil rights of all citizens has not yet ended.
That means it is time, once again, to ask Dr. King’s most famous and enduring question: Where do we go from here? It is time to consider – and to discuss – where we should focus our energies and where we must place our priorities.
Like many of you, I would argue that – of all the freedoms we enjoy today – none is more important, or more sacred, than the right to vote. And I’m hardly the first to make such an assessment. In July of 1965, when President Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law, he proclaimed that, “the right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless.”
Today, as Attorney General, I have the privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing this law, and the other civil rights reforms that President Johnson, Dr. King, and so many other courageous leaders and activists once championed. For our nation’s Department of Justice, and for our government and law enforcement partners across the country, this is among our highest priorities. And it is evident in the historic progress that’s been made by this Administration – especially when it comes to expanding access to legal services; to combating hate crimes, community violence, and human trafficking; and to strengthening law enforcement efforts so that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our immigrant communities and our voting booths – the rights of all Americans are protected.
Our efforts honor the generations who have taken extraordinary risks, and willingly confronted hatred, bias, and ignorance – as well as billy clubs and fire hoses, bullets and bombs – to ensure that their children, and all citizens, would have the chance to participate in the work of their government. And our efforts reflect the fact that the right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of government, it is – and always has been – the lifeblood of our democracy. In fact, no force has proved more powerful – or more integral to the success of the great American experiment – than efforts to expand the franchise.
Despite this history, and despite our nation’s long tradition of extending voting rights – to non-property owners and women, to people of color and Native Americans, and to younger Americans – today, a growing number of our fellow citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – nearly five decades ago – so many fought to address. In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from citizens, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble ideals; and that some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance.
Congressman John Lewis may have described the reason for these concerns best, in a speech on the House floor last summer, when pointing out that the voting rights he worked throughout his life – and nearly gave his life – to ensure are, “under attack… [by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” Not only was he referring to the all-too-common deceptive practices we’ve been fighting for years. He was echoing more recent fears and frustrations about some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season.
Let me assure you: for today’s Department of Justice, our commitment to strengthening – and to fulfilling – our nation’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice has never been stronger.
Nowhere is this clearer than in current efforts to expand access to, and prevent discrimination in, our election systems. We are dedicated to aggressively enforcing the Voting Rights Act – and to fulfilling our obligations under Section 2 and Section 5 of this vital law.
Under Section 2, which prohibits racially discriminatory practices that amount to either vote denial or vote dilution, we have opened a record number of new investigations – more than 100 in the last fiscal year. We’ve also had success – without litigation – in encouraging voluntary improvements and compliance.
At the same time, Section 5 – which requires preclearance of proposed voting changes in parts or all of sixteen states where discrimination was deeply rooted – continues to be a critical tool in the protection of voting rights. Under that important provision, certain “covered jurisdictions” are prevented from altering their voting practices until it can be determined that any proposed changes would have neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect. This process, known as “preclearance,” has been a powerful tool in combating discrimination for decades. And it has consistently enjoyed broad bipartisan support – including in its most recent reauthorization, when President Bush and an overwhelming Congressional majority came together in 2006 to renew the Act’s key provisions – and extend it until 2031.
Yet, in the six years since its reauthorization, Section 5 has increasingly come under attack by those who claim it’s no longer needed. Between 1965 and 2010 – nearly half a century – only eight challenges to Section 5 were filed in court. By contrast, over the last two years alone, we’ve seen no fewer than nine lawsuits contesting the constitutionality of that provision. Four of these currently are in litigation. Each of these challenges to Section 5 claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.
I wish this were the case. But the reality is that, in jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common – and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history.
As we’ve seen over the years, the Voting Rights Act – including Section 5 – consistently has been upheld in court. In fact, several days ago, the D.C. Circuit rejected one of the latest challenges to Section 5, reaffirming its continued relevance as a cornerstone of civil rights law, and underscoring the fact that it remains critical in combating discrimination – and safeguarding essential voting rights that, for many Americans, now are at risk.
As you know – and have worked to draw attention to – the past two years have brought nearly two dozen new state laws and executive orders, from more than a dozen states, that could make it significantly harder for many eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012. In response to some of these changes – in areas covered by Section 5 – the Justice Department has initiated careful, thorough, and independent reviews. We’re now examining a number of redistricting plans in covered jurisdictions, as well as other types of changes to our election systems and processes – including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, to early voting procedures, and to photo identification requirements – to ensure that there is no discriminatory purpose or effect. If a state passes a new voting law and meets its burden of showing that the law is not discriminatory, we will follow the law and approve the change. And, as we have demonstrated repeatedly, when a jurisdiction fails to meet its burden of proving that a proposed voting change would not have a racially discriminatory effect – we will object, as we have in 15 separate cases since last September.
For example, in Texas, the Justice Department has argued that proposed redistricting plans for both the State House and the U.S. Congress are impermissible, based upon evidence suggesting that electoral maps were manipulated to give the appearance of minority control while minimizing minority electoral strength. We argued – as we have successfully in the past – that this is precisely the type of discrimination that Section 5 was intended to block. This case has been tried and we are now awaiting the court’s decision.
Unfortunately, electoral redistricting is far from the only area of concern in covered jurisdictions. The recent wave of changes to state-level voter identification laws also has presented a number of problems requiring the Department’s attention. In December, we objected to South Carolina’s voter ID law, after finding – based on the state’s own data – that the proposed change would place an unfair burden on non-white voters. And this past March, we objected to a photo ID requirement in Texas because it would have had a disproportionate impact on Hispanic voters.
The Justice Department also is taking important steps to protect the voting rights of our men and women fighting overseas and our veterans returning home – as well as Americans living abroad, citizens with disabilities, college students, and language minorities. Just a few days ago, we filed a lawsuit and proposed consent decree against the state of California to remedy the state’s failure to send absentee ballots on time to its overseas citizens and military voters for the state’s June 5th primary election. This is the eighth such lawsuit the Department has filed in the last two years to protect the voting rights of service members and overseas citizens. We also will continue working to enforce provisions like the “Motor Voter” law – and, to that end, have recently filed two lawsuits to increase access to registration opportunities. In one of those cases, we reached a settlement with the State of Rhode Island that resulted in more voters being registered in the first full month after our lawsuit than in the entire previous two-year period.
In addition to these and other efforts to ensure access to the ballot box, we’re also working to uphold the integrity of our elections systems. And, on this front, I want to be clear that no form of electoral fraud ever has been – or ever will be – tolerated by the United States government.
From my early days as a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, I’ve been proud to stand on the front lines of this fight – and I fully understand the importance of investigating and prosecuting fraud cases whenever and wherever they arise. I also know firsthand what so many studies and assessments have shown – that making voter registration easier is not likely, by itself, to make our elections more susceptible to fraud. And while responsible parties on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon – any allegation of its occurrence is, and will continue to be, taken seriously.
As we continue working to expand – and to protect – the voting franchise, we’re fortunate to have strong allies in the Congressional Black Caucus whose members – just a few months ago – introduced legislation which opposes any state election law that would disproportionately impact vulnerable communities. We’re also privileged to have committed partners in, and beyond, this room who are – in a very real sense – the stewards of our democracy. That means you have a critical responsibility to help identify and implement the most effective ways to safeguard the “most basic” of all American rights. You have a thoughtful voice to add to discussions about voting access – what the struggle for freedom has long been about ensuring: the opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions, and – through the casting of their ballots – to signal their priorities and shape their own futures. Since its earliest days, the American people have worked and fought for such a system. And, now, with each of us – this fight goes on. The progress we hold dear is in our hands. And the democracy we hold sacred is our responsibility to carry forward.
In driving these efforts, I am privileged to count you as partners. And I am grateful for the leadership, commitment, and courage you’ve shown in keeping faith in the promise of this nation – and in the power of what its people can achieve together.