Remarks of Senator Barack Obama In Support of H.R. 9, the Voting Rights Act

July 20, 2006

Mr. President, I rise today, both humbled and honored by the opportunity to express my support for renewal of the expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I want to thank the many people inside and outside of Congress who worked so hard over the past year to get us here. We owe a debt of gratitude to the leadership on both sides of the aisle, and we owe special thanks to Chairmen Sensenbrenner and Specter, Ranking Members Conyers and Leahy, and Rep. Mel Watt. Without their work and dedication - and the support of voting rights advocates around the country - I doubt this bill would have come before us so soon.

And I want to thank both chambers, and both sides of the aisle, for getting this done with the same broad support that drove the original Act 40 years ago. At a time when Americans are frustrated with the partisan bickering that too often stalls our work, the refreshing display of bipartisanship we are seeing today reflects our collective belief in the success of the Act and reminds us of how effective we can be when we work together.

Nobody can deny that we've come a long way since 1965.

Look at registration numbers. Only two years after passage of the original Act, registration numbers for minority voters in some states doubled. Soon after, not a single state covered by the Voting Rights Act had registered less than half of its minority voting-age population.

Look at the influence of African-American elected officials at all levels of government. There are African-American members of Congress. Since 2001, our nation's top diplomat has been an African-American.

In fact, most of America's elected African-American officials come from the states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act - states like Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana and Georgia.

But to me, the most striking evidence of our progress can be found right across this building, in my dear friend, Congressman John Lewis, who was on the front lines of the civil rights movement, risking life and limb for freedom. And on March 7, 1965, he led 600 peaceful protestors demanding the right to vote across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

I've often thought about the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day. Not only John Lewis and Hosea Williams leading the march, but the hundreds of everyday Americans who left their homes and their churches to join it. Blacks and whites, teenagers and children, teachers and bankers and shopkeepers - a beloved community of God's children ready to stand for freedom.

And I wonder, where did they find that kind of courage? When you're facing row after row of state troopers on horseback armed with billy clubs and tear gas...when they're coming toward you spewing hatred and violence, how do you simply stop, kneel down, and pray to the Lord for salvation?

But the most amazing thing of all is that after that day - after John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life, after people's heads were gashed open and their eyes were burned and they watched their children's innocence literally beaten out of them...after all that, they went back to march again.

They marched again. They crossed the bridge. They awakened a nation's conscience, and not five months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law. And it was reauthorized in 1970, 1975, and 1982.

Now, in 2006, John Lewis, the physical scars from those marches still visible, is an original cosponsor of the fourth reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and he was joined last week by 389 of his House colleagues in voting for its passage.

There are some who argue the Act is no longer needed, that the protections of Section 5's "pre-clearance" requirement - a requirement that ensures certain states are upholding the right to vote - are targeting the wrong states. But the evidence refutes that notion. Of the 1,100 objections issued by the Department of Justice since 1965, 56% occurred since the last reauthorization in 1982. So, despite the progress these states have made in upholding the right to vote, it's clear that problems still exist.

Others have argued against renewing Section 203's protection of language minorities. Unfortunately, these arguments have been tied to the debate over immigration and muddle a non-controversial issue - protecting the right to vote - with one of today's most contentious debates.

But let's remember: you can't request language assistance if you're not a voter, and you can't be a voter if you're not a citizen. And while voters, as citizens, must be proficient in English, many are simply more confident that they can cast ballots printed in their native languages without making errors.

A representative of the Southwestern Voter Registration Project is quoted as saying: "Citizens who prefer Spanish registration cards do so because they feel more connected to the process; they also feel they trust the process more when they understand it." These sentiments - connection to and trust in our democratic process - are exactly what we want from our voting rights legislation.

Our challenges don't end at reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act either. We have to prevent the problems we've seen in recent elections from happening again. We've seen political operatives purge voters from registration rolls for no legitimate reason, prevent eligible ex-felons from casting ballots, distribute polling equipment unevenly, and deceive voters about the time, location and rules of elections. Unfortunately, these efforts have been directed primarily at minorities, the disabled, low-income individuals, and other historically disenfranchised groups.

The Help America Vote Act was a big step in the right direction, but we need to do more. We need to fully fund HAVA. We need to enforce critical requirements like statewide registration databases. We need to make sure polling equipment is distributed equitably and that the equipment works. And we need to work on getting more people to the polls on election day.

We need to make sure that minority voters are not the subject of deplorable intimidation tactics when they do get to the polls. In 2004, Native American voters in South Dakota were confronted by men posing as law enforcement. These hired intimidators joked about jail time for ballot missteps, and followed voters to their cars to record their license plate numbers.

In Lake County, Ohio, some voters received a memo on bogus Board of Elections letterhead informing voters who registered through Democratic and NAACP drives that they could not vote.

In Wisconsin, a flier purporting to be from the "Milwaukee Black Voters League" was circulated in predominantly African-American neighborhoods with the following message: "If you've already voted in any election this year, you can't vote in the presidential election. If you violate any of these laws, you can get ten years in prison and your children will get taken away from you."

So, we have much more work to do. This occasion is cause for celebration, but it's also an opportunity to renew our commitment to voting rights. As Congressman Lewis said last week: "It's clear that we have come a great distance, but we still have a great distance to go."

The memory of Selma still lives on in the spirit of the Voting Rights Act. Since that day, the Voting Rights Act has been a critical tool in ensuring that all Americans not only have the right to vote, but the right to have their vote counted. Those of us concerned about protecting those rights can't afford to sit on our laurels upon reauthorization of this bill. We must take advantage of this rare united front and continue the fight to ensure unimpeded access to the polls for all Americans. In other words, we need to take the spirit that existed on that bridge, and we have to spread it across this country.

Two weeks after the first march was turned back, Dr. King told a gathering of organizers and activists and community members that they should not despair because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. That's because of the work that each of us do to bend it towards justice. It's because of people like John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer and Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, all the giants upon whose shoulders we stand that we are the beneficiaries of that arc bending towards justice.

That's why I stand here today. I would not be in the United States Senate had it not been for the efforts and courage of so many parents and grandparents and ordinary people who were willing to reach up and bend that arc in the direction of justice. I hope we continue to see that spirit live on, not just during this debate, but throughout all our work here in the Senate. Thank you.