Thank you, Mark [Updegrove]. It is a pleasure to be with you—and to join so many friends, colleagues, and critical partners in welcoming some of our nation’s most dedicated and effective civil rights champions—as well as the many University of Texas law students who are here, and who will lead this work into the future.
I’d also like to thank Mark and his staff, as well as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum’s board members and community of supporters, for providing a forum for today’s conversation—and for all that you do, not only to honor the life and legacy of our 36th Commander-in-Chief, but also to build upon his historic efforts to ensure the strength, integrity, and future of our democracy.
Nearly half a century has passed since a national tragedy catapulted Lyndon Johnson to the Presidency, and at the same time launched a new chapter in America’s story. Those of us who lived through those painful days will never forget LBJ’s first Presidential speech—to a nation in mourning, and in desperate need of strong and steady leadership. After quoting the 1961 inaugural address in which President Kennedy famously declared, “Let us begin,” President Johnson outlined the unfinished business of the civil rights agenda. Then—with three simple words—he gave voice to the goals of his Presidency, and issued a challenge that has echoed through the ages: “Let us continue.”
In fulfilling this directive, President Johnson—and the many leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens who shared his vision and determination—set our country on a course toward remarkable, once-unimaginable, progress. Together, they opened new doors of opportunity, helping to ensure equal access to schools and public spaces, to restaurants and workplaces, and—perhaps most important of all—to the ballot box. Our great nation was transformed.
In 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 championed. This work is among the Justice Department’s most important priorities. And our efforts honor the generations of Americans 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 American citizens, would have the chance to participate in the work of their government. The right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of government—it is the lifeblood of our democracy. And 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—LBJ devoted his Presidency to addressing. In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from many Americans, 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, and essential, ideals.
As Congressman John Lewis described it, in a speech on the House floor this summer, the voting rights that 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 concerns about some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season.
Since January, more than a dozen states have advanced new voting measures. Some of these new laws are currently under review by the Justice Department, based on our obligations under the Voting Rights Act. Texas and South Carolina, for example, have enacted laws establishing new photo identification requirements that we’re reviewing. We’re also examining a number of changes that Florida has made to its electoral process, including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, as well as changes to early voting procedures, including the number of days in the early voting period.
Although I cannot go into detail about the ongoing review of these and other state-law changes, I can assure you that it will be thorough—and fair. We will examine the facts, and we will apply the law. 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 where a state can’t meet this burden, we will object as part of our obligation under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
As many of you know—and as I hope the law students here are learning—Section 5 was put in place decades ago because of a well-documented history of voter discrimination in all or parts of the 16 states to which it applies. Within these “covered jurisdictions,” any proposed change in voting procedures or practices—from moving a polling location to enacting a statewide redistricting plan—must be “precleared”—that is, approved—either by the Justice Department, or by a panel of federal judges.
Without question, Sections 5’s preclearance process has been a powerful tool in combating discrimination for decades. In 2006, it was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support—passing the House by a vote of 390 to 33, and the Senate by a vote of 98 to zero—before being signed into law by President Bush.
Despite the long history of support for Section 5, this keystone of our voting rights laws is now being challenged five years after its reauthorization as unconstitutional in no fewer than five lawsuits. Each of these lawsuits claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2011 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.
I wish this were the case. The reality is that—in jurisdictions across the country—both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And we don’t have to look far to see recent proof.
For example, in October, the Justice Department objected to a redistricting plan in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, where the map-drawer began the process by meeting exclusively with white officeholders—and never consulted black officeholders. The result was a map that diminished the electoral opportunity of African Americans. After the Justice Department objected, the Parish enacted a new, non-discriminatory map.
And, here in Texas, just two months ago, the Department argued in court filings that proposed redistricting plans for both the State House and the Texas Congressional delegation are impermissible, because the state has failed to show the absence of discrimination. The most recent Census data indicated that Texas has gained more than 4 million new residents—the vast majority of whom are Hispanic—and that this growth allows for four new Congressional seats. However, this State has proposed adding zero additional seats in which Hispanics would have the electoral opportunity envisioned by the Voting Rights Act. Federal courts are still considering this matter, and we intend to argue vigorously at trial that this is precisely the kind of discrimination that Section 5 was intended to block.
To those who argue that Section 5 is no longer necessary—these and other examples are proof that we still need this critical tool to combat discrimination and safeguard the right to vote.
As concerns about the protection of this right and the integrity of our election systems become an increasingly prominent part of our national dialogue—we must consider some important questions. It is time to ask: what kind of nation—and what kind of people—do we want to be? 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 ended? 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—and for our nation’s Department of Justice—the answers are clear. We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination, and partisan influence—and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country.
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. We have worked successfully and comprehensively to protect the voting rights of U.S. service members and veterans, and to enforce other laws that protect Americans living abroad, citizens with disabilities, and language minorities. As part of our aggressive enforcement of the “Motor Voter” law, this year alone, we filed two statewide lawsuits to enforce the requirement that voter registration opportunities be made available at a wider variety of government offices—beyond just the local department of motor vehicles. And we’re seeing promising results from this work. For example, after filing a lawsuit in Rhode Island, 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 included in the Voting Rights Act are aggressively enforced. These protections now apply to more than 19 million voting-age citizens. These are our Spanish-speaking friends and neighbors, our Chinese-speaking friends and neighbors, and a large and growing part of all our communities. In just the past year, we’ve filed three lawsuits to protect their rights. 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 as a moral imperative.
Just as we recently saw in Maine—where voters last month overturned a legislative proposal to end same-day voter registration—the ability to shape our laws remains in the hands of the American people.
Tonight, 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.
Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping 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 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, just last week, 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 I’m pleased to announce that—tomorrow—Senators Charles Schumer and Ben Cardin will re-introduce this legislation, in an even stronger form. I applaud their leadership—and I look forward to working with them as Congress considers this important legislation.
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 a right—it is not a privilege. Under our current system, many voters must follow cumbersome and needlessly complex 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. It should be the government’s responsibility to automatically register citizens to vote, by compiling—from 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.
So speak out. Raise awareness about what’s at stake. Call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead, encourage and work with the parties to achieve this success by appealing to more voters. And urge policymakers at every level to reevaluate our election systems—and to reform them in ways that encourage, not limit, participation.Today, we cannot—and must not—take the right to vote for granted. Nor can we shirk the sacred responsibility that falls upon our shoulders.
Throughout his Presidency, Lyndon Johnson frequently pointed out that, “America was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose—to right wrong, [and] to do justice.” Over the last two centuries, the fulfillment of this purpose has taken many forms—acts of protest and compassion, declarations of war and peace, and a range of efforts to make certain that, as another great President said, “government of…by…[and] for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”Today, there are competing visions about how our government should move forward. That’s what the democratic process is all about—creating space for thoughtful debate, creating opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions, and ultimately letting the people chart their course. Our nation has worked, and even fought, to help people around the world establish such a process—most recently during the wave of civil rights uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Here at home, honoring our democracy demands that we remove any and all barriers to voting—a goal that all American citizens of all political backgrounds must share.
Despite so many decades of struggle, sacrifice, and achievement—we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our most basic and important right. Too many recent actions have the potential to reverse the progress that defines us—and has made this nation exceptional, as well as an example for all the world. We must be true to the arc of America’s history, which compels us to be more inclusive with regard to the franchise. And we must never forget the purpose that—more than two centuries ago—inspired our nation’s founding, and now must guide us forward.
So, let us act—with optimism and without delay. Let us rise to the challenges—and overcome the divisions—of our time. Let us signal to the world that—in America today—the pursuit of a more perfect union lives on.
And, in the spirit of Lyndon Baines Johnson, let us continue.