Attorney General on Voting Rights Act changes
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder – and invalidated an essential part of the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of American civil rights law. Like many others across the country, I am deeply disappointed with the Court’s decision in this matter. This decision represents a serious setback for voting rights – and has the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country.
In the nearly half-century since its initial passage – in 1965 – the Voting Rights Act has consistently enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress as well as the Executive Branch. After extensive hearings, Sections 4 and 5 of this important law were reauthorized most recently in 2006, with the unanimous support of the U.S. Senate and the near-unanimous support of the House of Representatives. This is a uniquely legislative function and responsibility that the Constitution expressly gave to Congress. The last reauthorization was signed into law by President George W. Bush – just as prior reauthorizations had been signed by Presidents Reagan, Ford, and Nixon – in accordance with core nonpartisan American values.
After all, as Congress correctly recognized in the hearings held in 2006 – racial and language minorities face significant voting discrimination in some parts of our country. Given the successful decisions in the Department’s Voting Rights Act cases over the last 18 months, the need for a vital – and intact – Voting Rights Act remains clear.
Last year, a federal court cited the value of the Voting Rights Act in blocking the Texas congressional redistricting map on the grounds that it discriminated against Latino voters. In that case, the court noted that the parties “provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here.” The federal court that reviewed South Carolina’s photo ID law also noted the “vital function” that the Voting Rights Act played in prompting the state to change how it will implement the statute in future elections so that it would no longer disproportionately impact black voters. Without the Section 4 coverage formula, neither of these discriminatory voting changes would have been subject to review and both could have been implemented immediately.
These are just two of many examples demonstrating that these problems have not been consigned to history – they continue to exist. Their effects are real, they are of today – not yesterday – and they corrode the foundations of our democracy. Our country has changed for the better since 1965 but the destination we seek has not yet been reached. Indeed, a reading of today’s opinions demonstrates that every member of the Supreme Court agrees with this fact – as the Chief Justice wrote, “voting discrimination still exists: no one doubts that.” This is why protecting the fundamental right to vote – for all Americans – will remain one of the Justice Department’s highest priorities.
The Department of Justice will continue to carefully monitor jurisdictions around the country for voting changes that may hamper voting rights. Let me be very clear: we will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action – using every legal tool that remains available to us – against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.
As the President has made clear, Congress needs to act to make sure every American has equal access to the polls. The Department also will work with Congress and other elected and community leaders to formulate potential legislative proposals to address voting rights discrimination – because, on their own, existing statutes cannot totally fill the void left by today’s Supreme Court ruling. And I am hopeful that new protections can and will pass in this session of Congress.
The Voting Rights Act has always had strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and today’s ruling should not change that. This is not a partisan issue, it’s an American issue – because our democracy is founded on ensuring that every eligible citizen has access to the ballot box.
Finally, we need to be clear about what happened today. Part of the Voting Rights Act, but not all of it, was struck down. The constitutionally protected voting rights of all Americans remain fully intact. And the right to vote, free from discrimination based on race or language, requires our vigilant protection. We know from many decades of long, hard struggle that the best way to defend a right is to go out and exercise it. So no one should conclude that today’s unfortunate decision has rendered her or his voting rights invalid, or has made attempting to cast a ballot on Election Day futile.
To the contrary, it is incumbent on all American citizens to stand up for their rights by registering to vote, going to the ballot box, exercising that most fundamental of rights, and voting for their preferred candidates of any party. Our democracy is dependent on each of us, and on our active participation in the electoral process. Although today’s decision represents a serious and unnecessary setback, the Justice Department remains committed to moving forward in a manner that’s consistent with the arc of American history – which has always been a story of increasing equality, inclusion, and access to the franchise. This is what makes the United States of America truly exceptional. And this is what we will zealously guard.