Thank you, Director Putnam, for those kind words – and for welcoming me back to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum this evening. It’s a pleasure to be with you here in Boston – and to stand with your colleagues from the staff and board of the Kennedy Library, along with so many distinguished guests.
Thank you all for being here, and for participating in tonight’s important conversation. It’s a privilege to join you in celebrating the achievements, and the living legacy, of our nation’s 35th president. And it’s a special honor to partner with you as we continue the progress that defined his time in office, and renew our shared commitment to the work that became the cause of his life: ensuring the strength, integrity, and future of our democracy.
Although his Administration lasted for little more than a thousand days, John F. Kennedy seized his moment in history to advance a bold vision – and a sweeping civil rights agenda – that has been changing the face of our nation ever since. Over the course of three too-short years, he captured the imaginations of countless Americans – including me – and inspired in us a new kind of patriotism. This patriotism was anchored in the values that have defined this country since its founding, but he infused it with a fresh sense of optimism and possibility – not just about what this nation could become, but about the incredible difference that each and every determined citizen could make in that effort.
Along with principled leaders like his brothers – Robert, my predecessor as Attorney General, and Ted, one of the greatest senators in American history – President Kennedy showed us that public service can be a noble endeavor – and government a force for good. He reminded us that government has an essential role to play in protecting the advances made possible by those who, throughout our history, have confronted hatred, bias, and ignorance – not to mention billy clubs, bullets, and bombs – in order to secure the rights that each of us enjoys today. Although his presidency – and his young life – were cut tragically short before some of his proposals could become law, he set in motion a number of policies that led to landmark reforms. From the Equal Pay Act of 1963, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – these measures have helped to secure a brighter, more inclusive future for the country that President Kennedy loved. And, in all that he did, he urged us to think of the progress we’ve inherited: “ not so much [as] a gift from the past as a challenge for the future . . . for democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to effort, to sacrifice, and a willingness to live and to die in its defense.”
As President Kennedy knew – and as he reaffirmed throughout his life – at its core, ours is a story of countless ordinary citizens who, over the centuries, have risked their lives – and spilled their blood – to eradicate slavery, segregation, and prejudice; to pursue a more perfect Union; and to ensure the rights of all citizens to participate in the work of their government. From the colonists who fought – on the fields of Lexington and Concord – to establish a new Republic; to those who died, on the hills of Gettysburg, to preserve it. From the generation that braved the dangers of Omaha Beach and Blackett Strait; to the untold millions who dreamed of, and reached for, and marched towards the mountaintop – in Oxford and Philadelphia, Mississippi; and in Selma and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. President Kennedy recognized that no force in our history has been more powerful than the continued expansion of what’s been called the lifeblood of our representative democracy, the cornerstone of our system of government, and the “most basic” right of American citizenship: the right to vote.
This is a common thread that’s woven throughout our history: in countless stories of courage, extraordinary selflessness, and – too often – profound sacrifice. It’s a saga that continues to unfold today – in the actions of those who speak out against discrimination and unfairness, and in the resolve of the ordinary citizens who, just last month, endured long lines, biting temperatures, and blazing sun to make certain that their votes would be counted. And it’s a commitment that lives in the work of our nation’s Department of Justice, and particularly its Civil Rights Division – which, over the last four years, and under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, has taken historic action to expand opportunity and access; to protect the most vulnerable members of society from violence, exploitation, and discrimination; and to safeguard the essential civil rights protections that President Kennedy – and so many others – have fought to secure.
Foremost among these is the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – one of our most important, and most effective, tools for preventing disenfranchisement in our elections. A year ago this week – at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas – I gathered with some of America’s most dedicated civil rights champions to discuss the Justice Department’s longstanding efforts to enforce this critical law, and to keep our election systems free from fraud, discrimination, and partisan influence. And tonight – as we come together in the wake of contested campaigns for federal office – I can think of no more appropriate time to resume the conversation that we began in Austin. It is a time to draw back from partisan battle-lines; to focus instead on the long-term welfare of our nation; to recommit ourselves to the “new patriotism” – about which I speak today – that President Kennedy continues to inspire. And it’s a time to carry on the robust enforcement efforts that remain among the Justice Department’s top priorities.
At the center of this ongoing work is an important provision of the Voting Rights Act known as “Section 5” – a statute which requires all or parts of 16 states with documented histories of discrimination to obtain approval, from either the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges, for any proposed changes in voting procedures or practices. For nearly five decades, this process – known as “preclearance” – has prevented these “covered jurisdictions” from altering their voting practices until it has been determined that new proposals would have neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect. This provision has consistently enjoyed broad, bipartisan support – including, most recently, in 2006, when an overwhelming Congressional majority joined with President Bush to reauthorize its protections. It’s also been upheld as constitutional in each of the eight court challenges that the law’s opponents filed between 1965 and 2010 – during the first 45 years after it took effect. Over the last two years alone, however, we’ve seen at least 10 lawsuits – more than in the first four decades of the statute’s existence – arguing that Section 5 is no longer constitutional, and that our nation has moved far beyond the challenges that prompted both its passage and its recent renewal.
Like all of you, I wish this were the case. But the unfortunate reality is that, even today, too many citizens have reason to fear that their right to vote, their access to the ballot – and their ability to have their votes counted – is under threat. In too many places, troubling divisions and disparities remain. And, despite the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress that we’ve seen over the last half century – indeed, over the last four years – Section 5 remains an indispensible tool for eradicating racial discrimination.
It is a fact that, since January of last year, a number ofstates have adopted new voting laws and procedures, some of which could have an impact on the ability of millions of Americans to cast their votes. The Department of Justice reviewed some of these laws as part of its ongoing responsibility to enforce Section 5, and has also engaged in litigation on a number of fronts not only about the voting changes that some states sought to implement – but also about efforts to challenge the continued existence of Section 5 itself.
For instance, the Department objected to a voter identification law enacted by the State of Texas – characterized by a court as “perhaps the most stringent in the country” – that would have required voters to identify themselves with one of only five forms of identification, some of which could only be obtained if voters could afford to pay for underlying documents. A three-judge panel blocked the implementation of that law, finding that it “will almost certainly have retrogressive effect,” since “it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor – and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”
In a case involving redistricting in Texas, a district court panel agreed with the Department’s position that, in drawing a new Congressional map, the Texas legislature’s actions had both the effect and the intent of discriminating against minority voters. The trial court was troubled by what it called “u nchallenged evidence that the legislature removed the economic guts” of districts represented by African Americans. And it was not persuaded by the state’s claim that these changes resulted from mere “coincidence.” In agreeing with the Department – which objected to the plans under Section 5 – the court found that “the parties have provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here.”
Similarly, when Florida passed a law in 2011 to reduce the minimum number of early voting hours in advance of the 2012 election, a federal court agreed with the Department’s argument that this change could disproportionately impact African-American voters in parts of the state. The litigation ultimately required those counties in Florida to maintain early voting hours at prior levels. That same law imposed – in the court’s words – “harsh and impractical” restrictions on third-party voter registration organizations – for example, reducing the time to turn in voter registration applications from 10 days to 48 hours – that would have made it nearly impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to assist with the registration process. The Department objected to these burdensome regulations, and in parallel litigation a judge struck them down – noting that “if the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, this may work. Otherwise there is little reason for such a requirement.”
The Department also refused to preclear South Carolina’s voter identification law. In litigation seeking judicial approval of the new measure, the state – concerned that the enacted law was unlikely to satisfy Section 5 – significantly altered the application of this statute throughout the litigation in an effort to obtain judicial preclearance. The district court panel unanimously blocked the law from taking effect for the 2012 elections. And the court approved the law for later elections only because South Carolina effectively rewrote it during litigation – in what two of the judges labeled an “evolutionary process” that would not have occurred in the absence of “the vital function that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has played.”
As a result of such federal court decisions, and others like them over the years, it is clear that attempts to restrict voting are ongoing and are inconsistent with our history, and that the desire to achieve an electoral advantage must never trump our democratic values. Accordingly, we at the Department of Justice will never rest, never waver, and never hesitate to protect all citizens’ most basic rights.
This nation has come too far, and its people – from all races, religions, creeds, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and walks of life – have sacrificed too much not to finish the task of ensuring equal voting rights for all Americans. That is why so many agree – as illustrated over the past few years – that Section 5 remains essential to safeguarding the voting rights of millions across the country.
At the same time, it’s also true that – as jurisdictions covered by Section 5 come into compliance with the Voting Rights Act, they should no longer be required to seek federal preclearance for proposed voting changes. That’s why the statute includes a mechanism that allows for this eventuality, permitting covered jurisdictions to “bail out” of Section 5 when they demonstrate a history of abiding by the law. Since the current bailout provision took effect in 1984, bailout has been granted in 38 separate cases – with 20 of those cases in the past three years alone. This has resulted in the bailout of more than 190 covered jurisdictions so far. Additional cases are currently pending. And this provision’s continued effectiveness proves that Section 5 remains not only necessary, but proportionate to the challenges it is intended to address.
As the Department continues to move forward on these fronts, we remain committed to the highest standards of integrity, independence, and transparency in our enforcement of the Voting Rights Act as a whole; in our efforts to ensure the voting rights of language minorities, citizens with disabilities, and Americans living abroad; and in our dedication to protecting these rights for military service members at home and around the world.
At the same time, we recognize that the Justice Department can’t do it all – and that we’ll never be able to do it alone. When it comes to strengthening our democracy – in addition to eradicating discrimination and disenfranchisement – it’s imperative that state and local officials also continue to focus on improving the administration of elections. A recent study by the MacArthur Foundation found that nearly 90 percent of those who voted in last month’s election would support creating national voting standards. That’s why it is important for national leaders, academic experts, and members of the public to engage in a frank, thorough, and inclusive discussion about how our election systems can be made stronger and more accessible.
As I indicated last year, we can start by exploring ways to confront the single largest barrier that American voters currently face: our antiquated registration system.
According to the Census Bureau, 80percent of the 75 million adult citizens who failed to vote in the 2008 presidential election were not eligible to cast a ballot simply because they were not registered. Of these, it’s likely that some failed to register because – like one in every nine Americans – they had moved sometime during the previous year, and were unaware that, in most cases, their voter registration hadn’t moved with them. Other would-be voters might not have realized that the deadline for registering often comes as much as a full month before Election Day. And even some who did attempt to register may have been discouraged by cumbersome and outdated procedures, needlessly complex rules, improperly processed applications, and simple human errors that leave the system riddled with mistakes.
Fortunately, modern technology provides ways to address many of the problems that impede the efficient administration of elections, and to bring our elections into the 21st century. For example, by creating a system of automatic, portable registration – in which government officials use existing databases, with appropriate privacy protections, to automatically register every eligible voter in America and enable their registration to move when they do, rather the current system in which voters must navigate complicated and often-changing voter registration rules – we could not only improve the integrity of our elections, but save precious taxpayer resources. As I have proposed previously, we also should enact fail-safe procedures that allow every voter to cast a regular, non-provisional ballot on Election Day. Many states have already allowed same-day registration, and we should look closely at states’ efforts to assist voters who seek only to exercise their fundamental right to participate in the democratic process.
In addition, we should consider reforms to the redistricting process for state and federal offices – so districts are drawn in a way that’s neutral, that promotes fair and effective representation for all, and that can’t be abused to protect incumbents and undercut electoral competition. And we should pursue new legislative authorities that strengthen our ability to hold accountable those who engage in deceptive election practices. This means working with Congressional leaders to explore ways to deter and punish these deplorable activities.
At the same time, the Department is pursuing additional opportunities to partner with Congressional leaders to strengthen voting protections for overseas citizens and service members. Based on the Civil Rights Division’s experience enforcing the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, we’ve identified a series of recommendations for improving this law, and have sent them to Congress as part of a package of wide-ranging legislative proposals.
Election officials, wherever they are found, should also always be striving to administer elections more efficiently and more fairly. This means taking steps to address long lines at polling places – and ensuring that every polling place has an adequate number of voting machines. We must acknowledge that giving our fellow citizens access to the voting booth for longer hours and over additional days will enable more of them to cast their ballots without unduly interfering with the work or family obligations that so many have.
We must recognize that, in some cases, there is a risk that elections may hang in the balance for days or weeks due to the need to count hundreds – if not thousands or hundreds of thousands – of provisional ballots; and that it is a potential problem if these ballots are subject to counting standards that vary between jurisdictions. And we must also acknowledge that which is historically true: that the arc of American history has bent towards expanding the franchise. This generation must be true to that more inclusive history. This is our time; it is not a time to restrict the franchise.
Of course, at every turn, we must remain vigilant against voter fraud in all its forms. But we must also embrace the reality that experts on all sides of this debate have found – and which I’ve seen firsthand, as a young attorney in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section: that in-person voter fraud remains rare; and that the alleged tension between having accessible election systems – and having election systems that are free from fraud – is simply not real.
Fortunately, each of us has the power – and all of us have the responsibility – to stand up, and speak out, in defense of this most essential American right. And, especially this evening – as we reflect on the efforts we’ve been called upon to strengthen, and consider ways to safeguard our most cherished institutions – I believe we can best honor President Kennedy’s legacy not by looking back, but by moving forward.
As we take up this work – and seize the opportunities before us – let us recommit ourselves to protecting the hard-earned progress that constitutes not just our inheritance, but our sacred mandate. Let us therefore embrace, once again, a “new patriotism” – predicated on values as old as the Republic, and as contemporary as our new century – which puts the long term welfare of the nation above temporary partisan goals.
This “new patriotism” should not countenance through procedural abuses – which are sadly found in our history, but nowhere in our founding documents – mechanisms that frustrate the desire of our fellow citizens to exercise their most fundamental, and uniquely American, rights. Those who shed their blood have done so with the hope that a “more perfect union” would be preserved and made real. And their actions – and profound sacrifices – remind us that our nation did not come into being fully formed. It was made through the determination and work of those who dared to envision a unique country – an exceptional nation – and who placed great trust in the people.
Our history has consistently demonstrated that – whenever we have hewed to this founding, and continuing, ideal – America has flourished. So it is today – and so it must always be.
As we look toward the future, let us see it – as President Kennedy did – not as a gift, or a final achievement, but as a challenge that every generation must rise to fulfill. Above all, let us resolve – here and now – to build this future together – knowing that the necessity for this work will outlast us – but determined nevertheless to continue the efforts begun by patriots before us, and which we must now inspire in those future generations of Americans yet to come. Having faith – and yet knowing that, on this earth, “God’s work must truly be our own” – I believe in, and am confident about, the America that is to come.