Washington, D.C. –Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening remarks during a Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing on "History and Enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965:"
"The Voting Rights Act is widely recognized as the crown jewel of our nation’s civil rights laws. Many Members past and present accord the Act an almost sacred stature. Some, like our colleague John Lewis, shed their blood in support of its passage.Others owe their careers as legislators to its vigorous enforcement.
"Today’s hearing will provide an important opportunity for the Subcommittee to explore the history, the impact, and the need for restoration of the full vitality of the Voting Rights Act.
"After the VRA was enacted in 1965, its effect was almost immediate, with registration of African American voters more than doubling in the South within 4 years of enactment. Similarly, African American voter turnout rose from only 6% to 59% in just four years in Mississippi, and it soared to 92.1% in Tennessee, 77.9% in Arkansas, and 73.1% in Texas, during the same period.
"The net impact of VRA enforcement also resulted in the election of minority candidates of choice throughout the nation. The number of African Americans holding elected office jumped significantly, from barely 100 prior to the VRA, to more than 7,200 today, with 4,800 holding elected office in the South.
"In national offices, the number of African Americans in Congress doubled from 5 to 10 almost immediately after passage, and today, 56 African American Members serve in the House and Senate. And, of course, in 2008, this country elected its first African American president.
"Without question, the VRA has been an unqualified success. It helped to reduce discriminatory barriers to voting and expanded electoral opportunities for people of color to federal, state, and local offices, thereby opening the political process to every American. Despite decades of evidence of the VRA’s success, however, and a record spanning many thousands of pages—compiled primarily in this Subcommittee—documenting the continued need for the VRA, the Supreme Court, in the disastrous 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, substituted its own judgment for that of Congress, and effectively gutted the heart of the Act—its preclearance provision.
"Before the VRA, states and localities passed a host of voter suppression laws, secure in the knowledge that it could take many years before the Justice Department could successfully challenge them in court, if at all.
"As soon as one law was overturned, another would be enacted, essentially setting up a discriminatory game of whac-a-mole. Section 5 of the VRA, mandating preclearance, broke this legal logjam by requiring states and localities with a history of discrimination against racial and ethnic minority voters to submit changes to their voting laws to the Justice Department, or to a court, for approval prior to taking effect.
"In Shelby County, the Supreme Court struck down the formula for determining which states and localities are subject to preclearance, which had the effect of striking down the preclearance provision itself, as there is no longer a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to its requirements.
"As John Lewis eloquently stated, this decision "plunged a dagger in the heart of the civil rights movement."
"Unless and until Congress acts, this decision has removed the single most effective tool in our voting rights arsenal and has permitted previously covered jurisdictions to immediately enforce racially-biased election laws, some of which had already been deemed to have a discriminatory impact on minority voters, without prior review.
"In the absence of preclearance, predictably, the game of whac-a-mole has returned. Within 24 hours of the Shelby County decision, both Texas’ Attorney General and North Carolina’s General Assembly announced that they would reinstitute draconian voter ID laws. Both of these states’ laws were later held in federal courts to be intentionally racially discriminatory, but, during the years between their enactment and the court’s final decision, many elections were conducted while the laws remained in place. In addition to Texas and North Carolina, at least 21 other states have enacted newly restrictive statewide voter laws since the Shelby County decision.
"The loss of Section 5 preclearance cuts deep into the federal protection of the right to vote. In 2006, Congress found that a majority of Southern states were still engaged in ongoing discrimination, evidenced by some localities engaging in racially selective schemes to relocate polling places for African American voters, and some other localities annexing certain wards simply to satisfy white suburban voters who sought to circumvent the ability of African Americans to run for elective office in their respective cities.
"In the wake of the Shelby County decision, we have also seen the rise of voter suppression measures. Burdensome proof of citizenship laws, significant scale-backs to early voting periods, restrictions on absentee ballots, and laws that make it harder to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated individuals are just a small sample of recent voting changes that have a disproportionate impact on minority voters.
"While such actions may violate other provisions of the Voting Rights Act, time and experience have proven that it takes far longer, and is far more expensive, to pursue after-the-fact legal remedies. And once a vote has been denied, it cannot be recast—the damage to our democracy is permanent.
"That is why I hope that Members on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers of Congress, will come together and pass legislation to restore the full vitality of the VRA. Today’s hearing will provide an important opportunity to renew our understanding of the importance of the VRA, and to set the stage for additional oversight hearings on the issues presented by the current legal regime.
"We must use this opportunity to promptly craft a legislative solution that enables the Justice Department to effectively enforce the rights of minority voters within the contours of the Constitution. While this is not an easy challenge, given the gravity of the issues involved, and our long history of bipartisan cooperation in this endeavor, it is one that I believe our Committee will—and must—meet with success.
"I yield back the balance of my time."