Thank you, Elisabeth – for your kind words and for the outstanding leadership that you are providing – not only for the League of Women Voters, and its ever-expanding network of allies and supporters, but also in our nation’s ongoing struggle to protect the strength, the integrity, and the future of our democracy.
This is the cause that, more than 90 years ago, inspired the founding of this organization. And it’s the cause that brings us together today.
I am honored to be part of this annual convention – and to be among so many friends. And I especially am grateful for the opportunity to tell each of you, in person, how much I appreciate your partnership – as well as your dedicated, tireless contributions – in protecting the most fundamental, and most powerful, right of American citizenship: the right to vote.
Since its establishment in 1920, the League of Women Voters has been on the front lines of our nation’s fight to expand the franchise, to ensure that all eligible citizens have access to the ballot box, and to uphold this country’s founding and enduring promise of “government of, by, and for the people.”
Today, this work goes in your efforts to educate, mobilize, and register voters – in more than 800 state and local chapters in all 50 states and here in Washington D.C. It goes on in the innovative programs and resources you’ve developed, including the High School Voter Registration Manual – which is now available to students nationwide – and, of course, Vote411.org – a cutting-edge website for voting information that, in the 2008 election season alone, received more than 20 million hits.
And this work continues in your ongoing calls for improvements and updates in our voting systems; your advocacy for commonsense, cost-effective modernization; your outreach to aspiring young leaders – from all political parties – who view LWV as a “training ground” for civil engagement and public service at the highest levels; and, of course, in your work – in statehouses and courthouses nationwide – to speak out, and even to take legal action against, legislative efforts that could threaten voting access – and undermine the central provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Fifty years ago, this organization played a key role in advocating for the passage of this groundbreaking legislation. Despite the decades that have passed, and the progress that’s been achieved, since then – 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 – your mission, in many ways, has never been more important. We saw the important value in your work several days ago, in an important ruling in the case that LWV helped to bring against the state of Florida, in which you have successfully challenged the state’s new voter registration statute, and in so doing protected the rights of perhaps millions of eligible voters.
It’s clear that your actions in that case, and your similar efforts nationwide, have been fueled by both growing concerns that essential voting rights could be limited because of recent state-level legislative changes; and by a deep commitment – to upholding the values that have long distinguished our nation as a global leader and example, and that continue to define who we are as Americans.
Now, I realize that some have questioned your motives and mischaracterized your efforts. Believe me, I know how you feel. But the clear and simple fact is that this work never has been – and never should be – about politics or partisan maneuvering. This work is about honoring our most basic principles – of inclusion and opportunity, of equal treatment and fair representation. And it’s about fulfilling the most essential, and most sacred, obligations of American citizenship. That’s true for the League of Women Voters. And it’s also true for the United States Department of Justice.
As Attorney General, it is my obligation – and solemn duty – to ensure that the rights of all Americans are protected. And I’m proud that, under this Administration, our Civil Rights Division – and its Voting Section – have taken meaningful steps to ensure integrity, independence, and transparency in our enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
As you, we have reviewed – and, in some cases, denied administrative preclearance – to recent state-level voter identification laws. We are actively litigating voter ID laws passed in Texas and South Carolina because – based on each state’s own data – we determined that those laws disproportionately and adversely affect the rights of minority voters.
It is an, “undeniable fact that voter ID laws can burden some citizens’ right to vote.” Now, that’s not only my opinion – that’s a direct quote from one of my predecessors – former Attorney General Michael Mukasey – which he provided after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Indiana voter ID case. He went on to observe, and I quote again, that, “It is important for states to implement and administer voter ID laws in a way that minimizes that possibility [of a burden]. 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."
Today’s Justice Department is committed to these ideals – and to this work. As you all know – and will be discussing in greater detail throughout this convention – our voting rights enforcement efforts have never been stronger, more important – or more effective. We have worked successfully and comprehensively to protect the voting rights of citizens with disabilities, language minorities, and Americans living and serving abroad. During the 2010 election cycle, the Civil Rights Division obtained court orders, court-approved consent decrees, or out-of-court agreements in 14 jurisdictions, which ensured that thousands of military and overseas voters had the opportunity to vote and to have that vote counted. In fact, in just the past four months, we've filed three different lawsuits – in Alabama, Wisconsin, and California – to protect the voting rights of servicemembers and overseas citizens.
We’re also actively and aggressively enforcing the “Motor Voter” law – which this organization helped to advance – and working to make certain that voter registration opportunities be made available at a wider variety of government offices – beyond just the local department of motor vehicles. Over the last year and a half, we filed two lawsuits to enforce Section 7 of the NVRA – the first lawsuits filed by the Department to enforce this critical provision in seven years. We’ve also filed amicus briefs in five cases raising NVRA claims in the past year. We recognize that LWV thinks we should do more in this area- and we will - but we can all be encouraged by the steps that have been taken – and by the their promising results. For example, after filing a lawsuit in Rhode Island last year, we reached an agreement with state agencies that resulted in more voters being registered in the first full month after our lawsuit than in the entire previous two-year reporting period.
We’re also working to ensure that the protections for language minorities – another LWV priority – which are included in the Voting Rights Act, are aggressively enforced. These protections now apply to more than 19 million voting-age citizens. In the last year and a half, we’ve resolved eight different cases to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking, Chinese-speaking, and Native American voters in communities all around the country – from New York to Ohio to California to South Dakota to Nebraska. And, today, we’re actively reviewing nationwide compliance.
But the Justice Department can’t do it all. Ensuring that every veteran, every senior, every college student, and every eligible citizen has the right to vote must become our common cause. And, for all Americans, protecting this right, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but also as a moral imperative.
Today, I’d like to highlight three areas where public support will be crucial in driving progress – and advancing much-needed reforms. The first involves deceptive election practices – and dishonest efforts to prevent certain voters from casting their ballots.
Throughout our history we’ve unfortunately seen all sorts of efforts to keep people away from the polls – from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot. Before the 2004 elections, fliers were distributed in minority neighborhoods in Milwaukee, falsely claiming that “[I]f anybody in your family has ever been found guilty [of a crime], you can’t vote in the presidential election” – and that you risk a 10-year prison sentence if you do. Two years later, 14,000 Latino voters in Orange County, California received mailings, warning in Spanish that, “[If] you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that can result in jail time.” Both of these blatant falsehoods likely deterred some eligible citizens from going to the polls.
And, at the end of last year, the campaign manager of a Maryland gubernatorial candidate was convicted on election fraud charges for approving anonymous “robocalls” that went out on Election Day last year to more than 100,000 voters in the state’s two largest majority-black jurisdictions. These calls encouraged voters to stay home – telling them to “relax” because their preferred candidate had already wrapped up a victory.
In an effort to deter and punish such harmful practices, during his first year in the U.S. Senate, President Obama introduced legislation that would establish tough criminal penalties for those who engage in fraudulent voting practices – and would help to ensure that citizens have complete and accurate information about where and when to vote. Unfortunately, this proposal did not move forward. But, last December, Senators Schumer and Cardin re-introduced this legislation, in an even stronger form. As it continues to move toward committee consideration, it has sparked and helped to advance a critically important dialogue across – and beyond – Capitol Hill.
The second area for reform is the need for neutrality in redistricting efforts. Districts should be drawn to promote fair and effective representation for all – not merely to undercut electoral competition and protect incumbents. If we allow only those who hold elected office to select their constituents – instead of enabling voters to choose their representatives – the strength and legitimacy of our democracy will suffer.
One final area for reform that merits our strongest support is the growing effort – which is already underway in several states – to modernize voter registration. Today, the single biggest barrier to voting in this country is our antiquated registration system. According to the Census Bureau, of the 75 million adult citizens who failed to vote in the last presidential election, 60 million of them were not registered and, therefore, not eligible to cast a ballot.
All eligible citizens can and should be automatically registered to vote. The ability to vote is not merely a privilege – it is an essential Constitutional right. Under our current system, many voters must follow cumbersome and needlessly complex and varied voter registration rules. And every election season, state and local officials have to manually process a crush of new applications – most of them handwritten – leaving the system riddled with errors, and, too often, creating chaos at the polls.
Fortunately, modern technology provides a straightforward fix for these problems – if we have the political will to bring our election systems into the 21st century. We should automatically register citizens to vote, by compiling – from relevant databases that already exist – a list of all eligible residents in each jurisdiction. Of course, these lists would be used solely to administer elections – and would protect essential privacy rights.
We must also address the fact that, although one in nine Americans move every year, their voter registration often does not move with them. Many would-be voters don’t realize this until they’ve missed the deadline for registering, which can fall a full month before Election Day. Election officials should work together to establish a program of permanent, portable registration – so that voters who move can vote at their new polling place on Election Day. Until that happens, we should implement fail-safe procedures to correct voter-roll errors and omissions, by allowing every voter to cast a regular, non-provisional ballot on Election Day. Several states have already taken this step, and it’s been shown to increase turnout by at least three to five percentage points.
These modernization efforts would not only improve the integrity of our elections, they would also save precious taxpayer dollars.
Despite these benefits, there will always be those who say that easing registration hurdles will only lead to voter fraud. Let me be clear: voter fraud is not acceptable – and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department. But as I learned early in my career – as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, where I actually investigated and prosecuted voting-fraud cases – making voter registration easier is simply not likely, by itself, to make our elections more susceptible to fraud. Indeed, those on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon. We must be honest about this. And we must recognize that our ability to ensure the strength and integrity of our election systems – and to advance the reforms necessary to achieve this – depends on whether the American people are informed, engaged, and willing to demand commonsense solutions that make voting more accessible. Politicians may not readily alter the very systems under which they were elected. Only we, the people, can bring about meaningful change. And, because of this, the League of Women Voters continues to be – not just relevant, but absolutely vital in strengthening our democracy.
Through a range of efforts, you are calling on the citizens of this country to consider what kind of a nation – and what kind of a people – we want to be; and to ask some important questions: Are we willing to allow this era – our era – to be remembered as the age when our nation’s proud tradition of expanding the franchise was cut short? Are we willing to allow this time – our time – to be recorded in history as the age when the long-held belief that, in this country, every citizen has the chance – and the right – to help shape their government, became a relic of our past, instead of a guidepost for our future?
For me, for each of you – and for our nation’s Department of Justice and the National League of Women Voters – the answers are clear. But, unfortunately, the road ahead is far from certain.
That’s why you must keep up – and expand – your critical work. Continue to speak out; to raise awareness about what’s at stake; to call on all political parties and leaders to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success – and challenge and encourage them, instead, to work to achieve success by appealing to more voters. Keep urging policymakers at every level to reevaluate our election systems – and to reform them in ways that encourage, not limit, participation. And, above all, keep seeking out and seizing opportunities to build upon the remarkable, transformative progress that the League of Women Voters has helped to make possible.
In advancing these efforts, the people in this room are part of an extraordinary legacy. The arc of American history has always bent toward the expansion of the franchise. This organization has served as a key component for this most noble – and uniquely American – endeavor. But never forget – your vital work is not just historically relevant. You are also a vital, contemporary part of what makes our nation truly exceptional. I urge you – regardless of the opposition you face – to stay true, and remain fiercely committed, to the principles that have always guided the League of Women Voters and that can ensure that the 21st will be another "American century."