February 26, 2020

Cardin Calls Black History Month a Reminder of the Need to Guarantee the Right to Vote Regardless of Race

“When we exclude people from fully participating in our democracy, we prevent them from achieving the social, economic, and civic reforms they need to strengthen their families and communities.”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), issued the following statement to commemorate Black History Month 2020.

“Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, yet for much of our nation’s history, black men and women were denied this right and, once recognized, faced brutal obstacles to exercise it. Black History Month is an opportunity to recognize the legacy of the men and women in Maryland and the US, who marched and organized to lay the groundwork for progress during the Civil Rights Movement – and those who are working still to hold our nation accountable to the freedoms and rights guaranteed to all. 

“When we exclude people from fully participating in our democracy, we prevent them from achieving the social, economic, and civic reforms they need to strengthen their families and communities. Until we guarantee the right to vote regardless of race, we fall short of the unique promise and potential of the United States of America. Black History Month is a reminder of the progress achieved and the promises of equality we must continue to fulfill to form a more perfect union.” 

Senator Cardin’s full remarks for the Senate on Black History Month follows:         

IN HONOR OF NATIONAL BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2020 – African Americans and the Vote

In 1619, Africans were first brought to Virginia, against their will, to be enslaved.  From that moment on, white Americans systematically and violently denied the rights of citizenship to black Americans.  The adoption of the 15th amendment, ratified in February 1870, was a historic effort to correct course. It recognized the right of all male citizens, including black men, to vote.  This amendment was the first time that we promised to protect the right of African Americans to full and equal participation in our democracy.

In the 150 years since then, we have tried to expand on that promise many times, like when women of all races and ethnicities finally won the right to vote in 1920.  Yet, our promise remains elusively unfulfilled.  Today, in honor of Black History Month, I would like to take a moment to discuss the trajectory of that broken promise, as well as its impact on our character as a Nation.

We began to break our promise shortly after we made it.  During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, white men and women across the country developed a number of techniques – some obvious and brutal, some subtle and pernicious – to keep African Americans away from the polls and out of government. The broader goal of these tactics was to hamper the black population’s ability to recover from slavery by blocking their access to education and the economic means of building wealth.

I believe that it is important to acknowledge that Maryland partook in these pernicious behaviors right alongside other States. Maryland residents and government officials engaged in ballot tampering, imposed literacy and property restrictions, stoked racist fears to galvanize the white vote, and intimidated black voters using outright violence.

My intention here is not to condemn my home State.  To the contrary, I am exceedingly proud of the struggles for justice that have bloomed in Maryland through abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, and civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall.  I draw inspiration from the lineage of African American public servants in Maryland who overcame enormous obstacles in order to amplify the voices of their brothers and sisters.

These public servants include Verda Welcome, the first black woman ever elected to any State’s senate, as well as Adrienne Jones, the current Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, who is the first African American and first woman to serve in that position. They also include my friend and hero, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the son of sharecroppers who devoted his life to fighting for equality and fairness and lifting up our beloved community of Baltimore.

I am likewise grateful for all of the Marylanders whose names we might not know, but who nevertheless work every day to expand educational equity, reform our justice system, shrink the wealth gap, deliver health care, and otherwise make our society better.  Thanks to brave and dedicated people like these in Maryland and across the country, we have made significant strides toward racial justice.

I began by discussing Maryland’s bleaker moments in history for two reasons: 

First, to demonstrate that we must never take progress for granted.  Maryland has not always been a tolerant, inclusive State, it did not become one by accident, and it will not continue to be one unless we work to make it so.  Democracy and the rule of law do not just happen; we need to protect and nourish them every day.

Second, to illuminate how those injustices that still exist – of which there are many – are not new and are not incidental.  They are not just disparate effects of forces beyond our control. They are deeply rooted in policies and systems intentionally designed to subjugate African Americans.

One of the strongest, most disheartening examples of this phenomenon is the ongoing assault on the right to vote.  This is not ancient history.  States all over the country continue to “modernize” strategies developed a century ago to suppress African American voting power.  Some of these strategies are blatant and recognizable, like mass purges of voter rolls; the gerrymandering of districts with “surgical precision,” according to one court; and intimidation of black voters.  Some of the strategies are disguised behind excuses or fear tactics, like obstructive voter ID laws and felony disenfranchisement.

Regardless, these tools of oppression are alive and operating as intended. One in every 13 African Americans has lost his or her right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement.  Seventy percent of the voters purged from one State’s roll in 2018 were African Americans.  Studies reveal that implementing strict voter ID laws widens the black-white turnout gap by more than 400 percent.

So long as we allow these sorts of practices to continue under the exaggeration of voter “fraud,” we are denying African Americans their full right to vote and breaking the promise we made 150 years ago.  This is a problem on principle, of course, but also for practical reasons – when we exclude people from fully participating in our democracy, we prevent them from achieving the social, economic, and civic reforms they need to strengthen their families and communities.

So, what are we going to do about that?  I know what I will do: I will fight for laws that will guarantee every American a voice in our democracy.  That is why I have introduced bills to restore the federal right to vote to ex-offenders, and to penalize the voter intimidation and deception efforts so frequently aimed at people of color.  These measures alone will not eliminate the suppression of the black vote, but they are steps in the right direction.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.”  It is true that we cannot legislate love.  But we can and must legislate equality. 

The racism that we vowed to root out a long time ago is still here.  We may have reined it in, or it may have taken new forms that we do not recognize yet, but it is still here. Until we guarantee the right to vote regardless of race, we fall short of the unique promise and potential of the United States of America.  How can we be, at last, the Shining City on the Hill, while we continue to deny people their right to vote because of the color of their skin? 

For the sake of our democracy and our common humanity, for the sake of those who have suffered and died, for the sake of those living and those yet to come, let us make good on our 150-year-old promise. Let us build on the progress we have achieved, and let us stay vigilant about the threats that remain. 

Let us fulfill the right to vote.