ANNIVERSARY OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
Mr. President today marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation which helped guarantee the right to vote to all Americans. As we approach the upcoming midterm elections, it is important to remember the journey of voting rights in America. Without this right, words and phrases like "democracy", "land of the free", and "equality" lack true meaning.
The right to vote traveled a long ugly road - a road we must all remember. Edmund Burke once said "those who do not remember history are destined to repeat it." Some would say they are doomed to repeat it. For this reason, on this day and every day, we should remember how Americans, black and white; young and old; men and women; stood, marched and fought together for equal access to the voting booth. We must ensure that all barriers to voting are removed.
There are many people who contributed to the voting rights movement, today I would like to highlight one woman - Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer; a woman who was "sick and tired of being sick and tired" when it came to the denial of equal voting rights. Hamer, a great American hero, led a life most people could not imagine today. Despite having polio and only four months of schooling, Hamer became a matriarch of the voting rights movement.
On August 31, 1962 Hamer decided to exercise her constitutional right to vote by traveling 26 miles in Mississippi to register only to be confronted by the highway patrol and literary test requirements. After being denied her right to vote she didn't just sit down, she stood up and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and traveled all across the country speaking and registering other people to vote.
Hamer also helped organize "Freedom Summer" in 1964. She and thousands of civil rights supporters, many of them white college students, traveled to Mississippi and other southern states to try to end the long time political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the region. Despite these non-violent efforts for equality, on the very first day of Freedom Summer, three volunteers were brutally murdered. As America continued to march toward equality the nation and its political leaders began to realize the horrific battle being waged against African Americans seeking equal treatment under the law.
As violence and frustration mounted, President Johnson pushed Congress to act and pass voting rights legislation. After research, multiple hearings and the longest filibuster in Senate history, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This bill provided all Americans - regardless of color -- with nationwide protections against barriers and access to the voting booth. It contained protections against systematic methods of disenfranchisement by states and localities. Since its enactment, Congress has reauthorized the landmark legislation in an effort to remain vigilant against any forms of disenfranchisement.
In 2006, when Congress last took up reauthorization of this legislation, civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis said, " forty-one years ago I gave a little blood on that bridge. So when I see what's happening in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, it's a beginning of an effort not only to violate the letter but the spirit of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And that must not be allowed to happen." With overwhelming bipartisan support, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 390-33 and the US Senate passed the bill by a vote of 98-0.
Despite the bipartisan support and a large array of evidence demonstrating the continuing need for this legislation, some have argued that this legislation is no longer warranted. To those people, I say you are wrong. I have seen examples in my own state that prove how necessary this legislation is today. During my Senate campaign, just four years ago - the very same time the Congress was providing near unanimous support for the Voting Rights Act -- I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing deceptive practices and tactics used to undermine the constitutional right to vote. Lines were inexplicably longer and slower at polling locations in African American districts and not simply because there were more people voting. Phone calls were made to minority districts reminding them to vote on Wednesday, not Tuesday; and a fraudulent sample ballot was targeted to confuse minority voters. I remind you that this was in 2006, not 1956.
Just two years later, in the 2008 election, substantial barriers were implemented making it difficult for eligible voters to vote. These included the purging of voter rolls, misleading voter information and voter intimidation. Take for example, an election administrator in Mississippi improperly purging approximately 10,000 voters from the rolls from her home computer; or the local prosecutor in Ohio who requested via subpoena personal information for 40% of voters who had registered during the same day registration and voting period in the state. These are real examples of incidents occurring today - forty five years after we passed the Voting Rights Act.
Despite attempts to ignore or chip away at the protections provided to all Americans by the Voting Rights Act, this legislation remains relevant and provides the most significant and essential tool in ensuring continuity and the integrity of our democratic system. Our former colleague Ted Kennedy once said we need to "seek the reign of justice in which voting rights and equal protection of the law will everywhere be enjoyed." On this 45 th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, I urge my colleagues to continue their bipartisan support for this critical legislation and for equal access to the voting booth FOR ALL.
Sue Walitsky: 202-224-4524