Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon, everyone and thank you for that warm welcome. Before we begin, I know that we’re all still thinking about the devastating attack in Nice, France. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of those lost and wounded. And the Department of Justice has reached out to our French counterparts to offer any assistance we can provide.
It’s a pleasure to be here and it is a privilege to join so many outstanding leaders, passionate advocates and devoted public servants for this inspiring gathering – hosted by a truly inspiring organization dedicated to the idea that every American should be treated equally.
Of course, I’m mindful that we convene today in the shadow of several tragic incidents that have tested that idea, reminding us that for too many Americans of color, equal justice under the law too often seems like a promise unfulfilled; we also gather in the wake of the tragedy in Dallas, where we saw a city that has been a leader in community policing initiatives suffer the loss of five brave officers at the hands of an assassin. I want you to know that the Department of Justice is working tirelessly in a number of ways to restore trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve. Our Civil Rights Division is partnering with police departments across the country to ensure constitutional policing and to help build stronger communities. Our Community Relations Service is working with a range of stakeholders to resolve conflicts and promote reconciliation. Our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services is working in a variety of ways to promote and implement the recommendations from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to ensure that local law enforcement officers can serve residents fairly, safely and effectively. And our Office of Justice Programs is providing peer-to-peer resources and technical assistance to local law enforcement and communities. This is vital work – work that I know the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is also dedicated to advancing. From your efforts to engage with local law enforcement agencies to your work to help at-risk youth stay on a path of opportunity and achievement, you are at the forefront of our national initiative to make equal justice a reality for every American.
That leadership is consistent with LULAC’s proud legacy as a trailblazing organization committed to breaking down barriers of prejudice and building bridges of opportunity. When this organization was established in 1929, Latino Americans were the targets of discrimination in private business and public life. But in the face of exclusion and dehumanization, your founders stood tall and said, “We are Americans too.” Their action at a time of hardship and injustice represented an extraordinary leap of faith that America’s promise of liberty and equality could be extended to all Americans. And your actions since that time have vindicated their courage. In the decades since your founding, you have helped countless Latino Americans access quality education, find good jobs, secure decent housing and receive adequate health care. You have marched for Latino rights in the streets and argued for them in the courts – including in several landmark decisions that became important precedents for Brown v. Board. You have battled generations of prejudice and demonization bigotry – from the “No Mexicans Allowed” signs that were once common throughout the United States, to the outbursts of anti-immigrant sentiment that still too often poison our politics and infect our discourse. And you have fought to ensure that Latino Americans can fully enjoy their most basic right as American citizens: the right to vote.
That right is fundamental to the strength of our country and the health of our democracy. As our Constitution makes clear in its very first words, the United States is a nation built on the conviction that self-government – by “We, the People” – is the surest safeguard of freedom and the soundest foundation of prosperity and it is the right to vote in fair and free elections that makes self-government possible. Of course, in 1787, “We, the People” had a much narrower definition – a definition that largely excluded people of color. As Congresswoman Barbara Jordan said in 1974, “I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake.” But through long years of fierce conflict and determined struggle, that definition of “We, the People” has been gradually expanded – perhaps most effectively through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law – one of the most important civil rights laws of our nation’s history – finally gave the federal government meaningful power to enforce every American’s right to vote. With the stroke of a pen, centuries-old injustices were met with righteous action and an era of legally sanctioned discrimination was brought to a close.
But while the Voting Rights Act was undoubtedly a watershed in the history of America’s march toward universal suffrage, it was not the end of that journey. After all, it wasn’t until 1975 that American Indians, Alaska Natives and Latino and Hispanic Americans were fully included in its protections. Voters with disabilities gained protections in 1984 and 1990, while members of the armed forces and Americans overseas received enhanced protections in 1986 and 2009. And there is still so much work to do: Americans with criminal records are still too often disenfranchised for years because of their past misdeeds. Since the 2008 election, there has been a surge in state bills and laws that would curb access to the voting booth. And three years ago, the Voting Rights Act itself was significantly weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder.
That decision did great damage. It seriously undermined Section 5 of the VRA, which required jurisdictions with the most troubling histories of voter discrimination to receive federal approval, or “preclearance,” before they could change their election rules. Section 5 was in many ways the heart of the Voting Rights Act and its neutralization was a serious blow with far-reaching consequences. First and foremost, the Department of Justice can no longer block voting restrictions before they take effect. For example, in 2011, the state of Texas passed a restrictive voter ID law that requires voters to produce documents that more than half a million Texas voters simply do not have. Seven federal judges have reviewed this law and seven federal judges have found that it violates the Voting Rights Act – three of them before Shelby County and four of them after. The case is currently before the full Fifth Circuit, with a decision due any day. But because of Shelby County, Texas’s law remains in force while we wait for a final decision – and it is not the only one. Because of Shelby County, other states have also enacted laws that restrict voting rights. And these laws have the potential to distort elections by making it harder for voters – especially low-income and minority voters – to access the ballot box.
Shelby County had other consequences as well. It has forced the Justice Department to rely much more on local groups and individuals to alert us to potentially unlawful acts, since jurisdictions no longer have to self-report. In the past, we have also relied heavily on election observers – specially trained individuals who are authorized to enter polling locations and monitor the process to ensure that it lives up to its legal obligations. Unfortunately, our use of observers is largely tied to the preclearance coverage formula that the Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional in Shelby County and so our ability to deploy them has been severely curtailed. Rest assured, we will continue to monitor elections to the extent that we can, but because of Shelby County, we will be sending out fewer people with fewer capabilities this November.
The kind of harm we see – in places that pass restrictive laws that we now spend years fighting on the back end, instead of preventing on the front end; the harm that comes when we don’t have the same number or kind of “eyes and ears” in polling locations that we did before –cannot be undone. And in the year 2016, in the United States of America, it should not be tolerated. Nor does it have to be. In its ruling, the Supreme Court made clear that Congress has the ability to establish a new system for determining which jurisdictions are subject to preclearance – a step that would restore Section 5 to its full effect and restore our capacity to protect. I have repeatedly urged Congress to embrace this opportunity. And today, once again, I call upon the people’s branch to stand up for the people’s voice. In a nation of the people, by the people and for the people, no eligible citizen should be denied the right to vote, no matter who they are or where they live. And the representatives of the people should guarantee that right – not tomorrow, not after the election, but right now.
Now, the good news is that even without Section 5, the Voting Rights Act remains a potent tool. Its other provisions remain in effect. And there are many other important voting rights laws that our Civil Rights Division is using to ensure and to widen access to the ballot. We entered into an agreement with the State of Alabama to ensure its compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to provide eligible citizens with the opportunity to register to vote through motor vehicle agencies. Our action eased the way to vote for the more than one million Alabama residents who interact with the state motor vehicle agency annually. We have also made certain that communities in Virginia establish accessible polling places for voters with disabilities. We have secured access for Latino voters in Napa County, California, to the Spanish-language ballots and assistance to which they are legally entitled. We have worked to ensure that uniformed service members deployed at home and abroad are able to send in their absentee ballots in plenty of time for them to be counted – because the men and women fighting to defend our rights should never be denied theirs. When others bring cases, we join the fight there as well: since the beginning of 2014, we have filed briefs in private lawsuits in 14 different states that address issues ranging from district lines and registration opportunities to ID rules and language access. And as we prepare for the first presidential election since the Shelby County ruling, we are mobilizing all of the resources left at our disposal to monitor the process as thoroughly and effectively as possible.
We will continue to advance these efforts, but we cannot move forward alone. We will be leaning on our comrades in arms, our fellow soldiers in the fight. More than ever, we need people like you to be our eyes and ears. We need you to alert us to any irregularities in the registration or voting process. And we need you not only to defend the right to vote, but to exercise it. Because even as we challenge laws that would disenfranchise so many of our fellow Americans, we must ask why so many of our fellow Americans effectively disenfranchise themselves by choosing not to vote. Little more than half of voting-age Americans participated in the 2012 presidential elections and in the 2014 midterms, the number fell to just 36 percent – the lowest turnout in 70 years. As President Obama has said, “Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world.”
This is an issue that transcends partisanship. No matter our political beliefs, each of us has an interest in a lively and robust democracy where everyone participates. And I would urge the American people to recall just how precious the ballot really is. Today, there are still millions of people around the world who can only dream of casting a legitimate ballot; countless others have wielded that right, only to see it crushed by force or stripped away by violence. And though too many Americans have been excluded from the polls for too much of our history, our history has also brought us heroes who gave so much to tear down those obstacles, to end those injustices, to challenge the United States to make good on the promises set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought and died for that right overseas – many of them before their country fully recognized them as citizens. And many of us here tonight are the children of those who marched and bled to enlarge that right here at home. So many tried to silence them by force; how can we silence ourselves through inaction?
Our votes do more than select a candidate or choose a leader. With our votes – with the steps we take and the ballots we mark – We reaffirm our commitment to one of our most basic convictions as Americans: the idea that each of us can and should make a contribution to our common life; that one person’s voice is as worthy as the next; that each of us owns America and that in the final analysis, we are all created equal. When we go to the polls on Election Day – when we wake up early to vote before work or school; when we stand at the polls with our fellow citizens; when our turn comes and we step forward to mark our ballot – we do so not as Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, black or white, Latino or Asian. Rather, we do so as Americans – diverse in our beliefs and opinions, but united in our devotion to this great democracy. As it is written on the Great Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one.
Today, as we gather to reflect on the gains we have made and to chart our course forward, let us remind ourselves that we are stronger when we act as one nation and one people. Let us choose to honor our privileges and to meet our responsibilities. Let us resolve not only to defend our most basic right as Americans, but to cherish it, to honor it, to exercise it – in protection of liberty, in defense of democracy and in pursuit of justice.
I want to thank all of you here today at LULAC for working to safeguard the right to vote throughout your proud history. I want to thank you for always challenging our nation to be more open, more inclusive and more equal. And I want you to know that the Department of Justice will remain your staunch ally and faithful partner in that noble work – the work that has driven our progress in the past; that animates us in the present; and that promises to help us realize a brighter future.