June 21, 2021

Cardin: Protecting the Right to Vote -- Why the "For the People Act" must pass the Senate

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) spoke from the floor of the United States Senate Monday to address the importance of passing voting rights legislation. Video of Senator Cardin’s floor statement can be found here.

Madam President, this Saturday was Juneteenth, the first official Juneteenth recognized by the federal government as a national holiday; the official end of slavery in America. I commemorated and celebrated Juneteenth with my colleague Senator van Hollen at a meeting of the NAACP chapter in Randallstown Maryland, and we reflected on the progress that we’ve made since the end of slavery and the challenges that still remain.

It's been a long path towards justice and equality in this country, and I think we all recognize the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with his famous quote that “the moral arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” I think we all believe that, but in recent actions taken by state governments to restrict voting rights, we've seen some very disturbing trends that would take issue with Dr. King's statement, that the moral universe is bending towards justice. It seems like it's taken a detour.

Voting rights is a fundamental issue of importance to a democratic country. Madam President, after elections are over and we win, we celebrate. We celebrate the fact that we've gotten the support of the majority of the voters and that was what democracy is all about. If we don't win—I think many of us have been involved in campaigns where our candidates have not been successful—we go to work to try to attract more voters in the next election so we can celebrate a victory. That's what participation in a free society is all about. That's what democracies are about. In repressive, autocratic regimes, they'll never accept the will of the people, so they look at ways in which they can undermine the voter record, what the voters want to do; the voters' will.

In the 2020 elections, we should all celebrate the record number of people who cast their ballots. It was a record. Most ever, casting their votes for the Presidency of the United States. There was repeated reviews done by both Democrats and Republicans. At the national level and the state level, and at the local level. And it verified the simple fact that there was no widespread corruption that the will of the people prevailed, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were elected president and vice president of the United States.

But that did not stop former President Trump in promoting the big lie. As a result of that, several states have now taken action to make it harder for people to cast their votes. The Brennan center has pointed out that we've seen the worst assault on voting rights since Jim Crow. 14 states have enacted 22 new laws to make it more difficult, more difficult for people to vote. This is unprecedented in modern times.

So what have those laws done? Made it more difficult for voters to vote by mail, recognizing that for many voters, they prefer to vote by mail. We have states that have a hundred percent voting by mail. There's been no indication of fraud in voting by mail. States have shortened the time for requesting mail-in ballots for voting, making it more difficult for individuals to be able to vote by mail, requiring certain requirements to vote by mail, making it more difficult to deliver their mail ballots, limiting the availability of mail ballot drop boxes. All of that had been included.

Why? Because it makes it more difficult for people who are likely to vote for my opponent to vote. That's what these state legislatures were doing. Stricter signature requirements, making in-person voting more difficult, and purging voter rolls simply because a person did not vote, again making it more difficult for people to vote. And it goes on and on and on, on the types of legislation that has already passed or is currently being considered by many state legislatures around the country. Making it more difficult to register to vote, making it more difficult to vote, targeting potential voters more likely to vote for their opponents, targeting minorities, young voters, and older minority voters.

Let me just give one example. Using Georgia as a specific example, the recently enacted changes will disproportionately hurt black voters. The Georgia state law imposes voter identification requirements on absentee ballots, makes it hard to request an absentee ballot, and makes it a crime for groups to provide food and water to voters waiting in line. Georgia is basically restricting mail voting in response to a shift in their racial demographics of the voters who use it. On the other hand, Georgia wants to keep mail voting available for older white male voters. Voter suppression is always unacceptable, and the razor thin political margins in Georgia may mean that the suppression efforts like these will change political outcomes. Rather than imposing barriers to casting the sacred right to vote, Georgia should be looking at ways to improve voter access.

As The New York Times pointed out, the Georgia law comes on the heels of a major upset for Republicans in the traditionally red state, after voters picked Joe Biden in the Presidential election and elected Democrats to both the state's U.S. Senate seats. The paper noted that the new Georgia law “will, in particular, curtail ballot access for voters in booming urban and suburban counties, home to many democrats.” President Biden was right to call this legislation “the Jim Crow in the 21st century.” There are many other examples—Georgia is not unique. The efforts we're seeing to suppress voter participation at elections. Look, it's fair game to try to persuade voters to vote for your candidate. It's not fair game to suppress the right to vote.

So what is the vote this week all about? The vote that we're going to have on bringing forward the opportunity to debate voter suppression legislation to protect the right to vote. It's simply a motion to proceed with a debate on the senate floor. Let me repeat that. We're not voting on S. 1, the passage of it. We're not voting on any specific proposal. I know my friend from West Virginia has offered a proposal. We're not voting on that. We're voting on the right for the senate to take up this critically important issue, or whether it should be filibustered so we can't bring up a voter issue to protect the integrity of the right to vote.

I support S. 1. I am a cosponsor of S. 1, For the People. I'm proud to support the provisions of that bill. To me, it’s a carefully drafted legislation to deal with the modern threats to voter participation. And I am extremely proud that my colleague from Maryland, Congressman John Sarbanes, is the principal sponsor of H.R. 1. In the house, and it already passed the house. It provides a basic federal floor on protection of the right to vote, on voter registration, on voter-by-mail, no-excuse balloting, two weeks of early voting, including weekends, no notary requirement for absentee ballots, drop-off boxes. It's a simple voter protection against the actions being taken by state legislatures that are aimed at certain demographic groups. A federal floor.

It ends political gerrymandering. I don't know how any of my colleagues can defend the way that legislative and congressional lines are drawn today. I came from the state legislature. I'm a former Speaker of the House. I was responsible for one of the redistricting plans in Maryland when I was Speaker of the House. It's just a horrible partisan political process that we use today to draw congressional lines. I've been accused by my congressional colleagues in the house, from Maryland, that I ran for the senate to avoid having to deal with congressional redistricting. And there may be some truth to that. But I can tell you this: it is time to end political gerrymandering. Congressional districts should represent the communities' interests, not an individual congressman's interest. S. 1 takes a major step forward in ending political congressional redistricting by gerrymandering. 

It provides a commitment by congress to advance preclearance formula that was in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that now is non-operative because of the Shelby County decision. It puts us on a path to once again have that important tool available in order to deal with the freedom and right of vote. It promotes voter security, S. 1, by eliminating the paper ballot—by requiring the ballot, I should say. Not eliminating, by requiring a paper trail. I think all agree that we want to verify votes. The only way you can is if there is a paper trail. And it provides for that paper trail. It puts an end to the dominance of big money in the political system. They do that in a couple ways. One, disclosure. How can anyone be against the disclosure of who's putting money into our political system?  And, secondly, a providing a way in which we can get rid of the dependence upon large special interest dollars.

It includes, S. 1, two provisions that I authored. One, the Set the Practices Act, that deals with false and misleading advertisements which are aimed at targeting minority communities to confuse and mislead their votes. And it includes the Democracy Restoration Act that I authored, that deals with laws passed after the end of slavery in an effort to prevent African Americans from voting. For, you see, there are states that passed laws back then that are still on the books that disqualifies for a lifetime a person convicted of a felony. The definition of felony is pretty general in many states. So we have states where one out of five African Americans have been disqualified from voting, because of their conviction of a felony, even though they are fully part of our society today. They don't have the right to vote. We need to remove that disqualification on voting.

My friend, our former colleague, John Lewis, the two of us were elected to the United States House of Representatives on the same day. In an editorial published after his death, our former colleague John Lewis recalled an important lesson taught by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And I quote our former colleague. He said, “Each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act. And each generation must do its part.”  Well, Madam President, we cannot take action if we don't start! And we can't start unless my colleagues allow us to proceed to this issue on the floor of the United States Senate.

There’s a reason why there are so many groups behind us taking action. I have a Facebook live that I do every two weeks with my constituents. Jenna Morgan, from the declaration for American democracy, which represents over 180 groups—from labor, to racial justice groups, faith groups, women's rights groups, environmental, good governance groups, all telling us that we need to move forward to protect our democracy. That the senate needs to act on this issue. One of my guests, Virginia K. Solomon from the League of Women Voters—now, the League of Women Voters, you can say a lot of things about them, but you can't accuse them of being partisan, because they're not. It is one of our premier nonpartisan institutions in America. They have a proud history. They're telling us to take this bill up and act, for the sake of protecting our democracy. We then have a chance to act! To take up amendments and vote on amendments and vote on concerns whether they're offered by a Republican Senator or a Democratic Senator. That's what the motion proceeds allows us to do, to take up these issues so we can vote on them. But if you vote to filibuster the motion to proceed, we can't even bring the issue up on the senate floor for action!

Madam President, I urge my colleagues not to filibuster the right of the united states senate to start the debate on protecting voter integrity, where each member will have an opportunity to debate the issue, and collectively we can come together. As many of my colleagues have offered suggestions about how we can improve S. 1, how we can make it a broader consensus. But we can't do that unless we have the right to proceed to a debate. I urge my colleagues to support the cloture motion on the motion to proceed so the senate can take up this most critically important issue to the preservation of our democracy and the integrity of the right to vote. With that, I yield the floor