A picture of Representative Sheila Jackson Lee
Sheila J.
Democrat TX 18

About Rep. Sheila
  • Democracy in Crisis

    by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee

    Posted on 2016-05-23

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    JACKSON LEE. Let me thank the distinguished gentleman from New York, who shows that the issues of voter empowerment are nationwide.

    Let me also thank the gentlewoman from Ohio, who has been steadfast on important issues that deal with the empowerment of all Americans.

    Mr. Speaker, I note that my colleague from Texas made his presentation, Congressman Veasey, who everyone knows was the plaintiff in Texas for the voter ID law.

    I wanted to come this evening very briefly to, one, submit a full statement [[Page H2951]] into the Record and to make this point. And let me read the headline or the topic again: Democracy in Crisis: The Reckless Republican Assault on the Right to Vote in America.

    It did not have to be, for it is evident that we have dealt with voter empowerment in a bipartisan way. It is the very difficult journey that Lyndon Baines Johnson took in 1965 after the foot soldiers and Dr. Martin Luther King and others made their momentous march and statement, including a letter from a Birmingham jail that captured the history or the sentiment and the movement of the civil rights movement in the very basic words: Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.

    With that power behind him, he was able to frame the Voting Rights Act in a bipartisan manner with Republicans from the North and with whom we used to call Dixiecrats from the South. It can be done.

    Then, in 2006 and 2007, I was privileged to have another Texan, George W. Bush, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, after 15,000 pages of testimony with a Republican chairman, and we went and passed a vote reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

    Let me close with these points about the pointedness, Mr. Jeffries, of what voting power actually means.

    What it means is that we would not have the North Carolina set of voting laws, if you will, that cut Sunday voting or early voting. It had one of the most horrific voter ID laws.

    We would not have the Texas voter ID law that disenfranchised thousands upon thousands of Hispanics because of no DPS officers-- Department of Public Safety officers--in their locations.

    We would not have an attempt to cut billions of dollars from food stamps and an attempt to cut trillions of dollars from education for our children and the status that we are in right now of trying to seek the full funding of the President's emergency funding of $1.9 billion for the Zika virus. This is what ``voting power'' means.

    Finally, after the Supreme Court instructed the Congress or told the Congress that we needed to have a new bill, we would not have the predicament we are in now. We need voting power, and that is what voting rights are all about.

    Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join my colleagues of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Congresswoman Joyce Beatty (D-OH) who are anchoring this Special Order on Democracy in America and the Reckless Assault on Minority Voting Rights.

    I thank all of my colleagues on the Congressional Black Caucus for their leadership on fighting back against voter suppression and holding this important special order to discuss what we can do to protect our voices and democracy.

    I applaud my colleagues here today for their commitment to being the change that we all wish to see in America--today and for generations to come.

    I also want to thank my colleague from Texas, Mr. Veasey for his leadership in forming the Voting Rights Caucus. As a Vice Co-Chair, I look forward to working with the Members of this new Caucus and my colleagues of the CBC Voting Rights Task Force as we continue in this movement to elevate our voices and rights as citizens that we have long fought for and earned.

    We are at a pivotal time to protect and embrace the power that we hold in restoring and maintaining our democracy.

    The 2016 election season is already in full swing.

    As voters in a number of states face new restrictions for the first time in a presidential election, we've already seen problems in primaries across the country.

    A new photo ID requirement led to long lines in Wisconsin. A reduction in polling places forced some to wait five hours to vote in Arizona. New rules created confusion in North Carolina.

    And in my home state of Texas, last minute changes to polling locations in Harris County resulted in long lines, confusion and for some, the inability to vote.

    The challenge of voting in fewer polling locations without adequate notice, along with the implementation of long-contested voter ID law changes, created unnecessary and burdensome obstacles for voters in a county that is home to more minorities and non-English speaking residents than that of greater state of Texas or the nation.

    In a county that ranks third in the nation in terms of population, critical changes impacting the ability of individuals to exercise their right to vote must be reviewed to ensure that any violation of federal law is addressed and corrected.

    This could be an early glimpse of problems in November--as voters face the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to prevent discrimination in voting.

    In 2016, 17 states will have restrictive voting laws in effect for the first time in a presidential election.

    Restrictions in most of these 17 were passed before this year.

    The new measures range from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions.

    Those 17 states are: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

    We cannot afford to turn back the clock--we must continue to forge ahead and push back against these egregious and painful laws.

    The Voting Rights Act is still needed.

    Let me put it this way: in the same way that the vaccine invented by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1953 eradicated the crippling effects but could not eliminate the cause of polio, the Voting Rights Act succeeded in stymying the practices that resulted in the wholesale disenfranchisement of African Americans and language minorities but did not eliminate entirely.

    Or as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her dissent of the Court's ruling: Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

    As stated by my predecessor, Barbara Jordan, a civil rights and voting rights icon and a woman of many firsts--I know that perhaps the greatest and most important battle to be fought is on behalf of the right to vote, the most precious right of all because it is a preservative and passage of all other rights.

    We must be vigilant in this movement to elevate our voices and rights as citizens that we have long fought for and earned.

    Fifty years ago, America was preparing for the first national election following passage of the Voting Rights Act--the crucial legislation for which Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights activists toiled for years.

    Today, we're preparing for our first election in half a century in which these essential voter protections will not be available.

    Voting rights were ascendant in 1966--today voter suppression tactics are spreading throughout the nation.

    Congress was increasingly an ally in 1966--now in 2016, it's conspicuously absent.

    Regressive state voter suppression laws--including Voter ID laws, Voter caging, elimination of polling places, elimination of early or Sunday voting, refusal to locate sites in low-income areas, last-minute changes to polling locations--are the clear culprits.

    In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court's disastrous Shelby ruling--which eliminated the requirement that areas with histories of discrimination receive preclearance for any changes to voting laws-- there was hope that Congress would act to mitigate the damage.

    But those hopes have been diminished.

    There has been no Congressional action to repair the VRA to date.

    At face value, a voter ID law might not look as egregious as a poll tax.

    But, considering the hurdles that they present--including the need to procure a birth certificate or visit a far-away DMV during severely- limited operating hours--the obstacles are comparable.

    These laws are especially prohibitive for elderly or low-income people who have difficulty traveling.

    Recent studies reveal that state voter suppression could stop approximately 1.3 million from voting in competitive election states.

    Thirty-six states have promulgated new laws that disproportionately impact minority citizens in response to fabricated issue of ``voter impersonation.'' Sixteen of these states will see their plans go into effect for the first time in the 2016 elections.

    An analysis by Nate Silver for the New York Times shows that these laws can decrease turnout by between 0.8 and 2.4 percent--a potentially decisive amount in highly competitive elections.

    As The Nation's Ari Berman and others have methodically reported, the efforts to suppress votes through Voter ID laws, the purging of voter rolls, and the elimination of polling places are already having their impacts.

    The 2016 primaries have been marked by long lines in several states and severe hurdles to voting.

    According to Ari Berman, voters disenfranchised by new laws include: a man born in a German concentration camp who lost his birth certificate in a fire; a woman who lost use of her hands but was not allowed to [[Page H2952]] use her daughter as power of attorney at the DMV; and a 90-year-old veteran of Iwo Jima, who was not allowed to vote with his Veterans ID.

    We need to translate widespread outrage about voter suppression into momentum for an actionable voting rights agenda.

    While proponents of voter ID laws point constantly to a looming ``crisis'' of voter impersonation to justify barriers to accessing the polls, they've yet to demonstrate empirical evidence. Where is the proof? We now have empirical evidence, gathered from academic experts at University of California at San Diego and other leading institutions, that voter suppression laws disproportionately impact minorities and immigrants.

    Fixing the VRA is just the start of the fight to secure voting rights.

    We must also deal with issues including aging and insecure voting machines, problems with absentee ballots, willful misinformation, felon disenfranchisement, partisan election administration, untrained election staff, and many others.

    As we know, the Voting Rights Act is one of the most fundamental pieces of American legislation, designed to prevent the disenfranchisement of black and minority voters by prohibiting voting practices and procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.

    In signing the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said: The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

    Since its passage in 1965, and through four reauthorizations signed by Republican presidents (1970, 1975, 1982, 2006), more Americans, especially those in the communities we represent, have been empowered by the Voting Rights Act than any other single piece of legislation.

    Section 5 of the Act requires covered jurisdictions to submit proposed changes to any voting law or procedure to the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. for pre- approval, hence the term ``preclearance.'' Under Section 5, the submitting jurisdiction has the burden of proving that the proposed change(s) are not retrogressive, i.e. that they do not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.

    In announcing his support for the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act, President Reagan said, ``the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties.'' And Section 5 is the ``crown jewel'' of the Voting Rights Act.

    But a terrible blow was dealt to the Voting Rights Act on June 25, 2013, when the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 537 U.S. 193 (2013), which invalidated Section 4(b), the provision of the law determining which jurisdictions would be subject to Section 5 ``pre-clearance.'' In 2006, the City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, Alabama, enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan without complying with Section 5, leading to the loss of the city's sole African-American councilman, Ernest Montgomery.

    In compliance with Section 5, however, the City of Calera was required to draw a nondiscriminatory redistricting plan and conduct another election in which Mr. Montgomery regained his seat.

    In 2010, Shelby County filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have Section 5 declared unconstitutional.

    In 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the constitutionality of Section 5, holding that Congress acted appropriately in 2006 when it reauthorized the statute.

    And in 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the district court ruling by a vote of two to one.

    However, on June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which sets out the formula that is used to determine which state and local governments must comply with Section 5's preapproval requirement, is unconstitutional and can no longer be used.

    Thus, although the Court did not invalidate Section 5, it will have no actual effect unless and until Congress can enact a new statute to determine who should be covered by it.

    According to the Supreme Court majority, the reason for striking down Section 4(b): ``Times change.'' Now, the Court was right; times have changed. But what the Court did not fully appreciate is that the positive changes it cited are due almost entirely to the existence and vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

    And that is why the Voting Rights Act is still needed.

    Let me put it this way: in the same way that the vaccine invented by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1953 eradicated the crippling effects but could not eliminate the cause of polio, the Voting Rights Act succeeded in stymying the practices that resulted in the wholesale disenfranchisement of African Americans and language minorities but did not eliminate entirely.

    Or as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her dissent of the Court's ruling: Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

    Before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the right to vote did not exist in practice for most African Americans.

    And until 1975, most American citizens who were not proficient in English faced significant obstacles to voting, because they could not understand the ballot.

    Even though the Indian Citizenship Act gave Native Americans the right to vote in 1924, state law determined who could actually vote, which effectively excluded many Native Americans from political participation for decades.

    Asian Americans and Asian immigrants also suffered systematic exclusion from the political process.

    In 1964, the year before the Voting Rights Act became law, there were approximately 300 African-Americans in public office, including just three in Congress. Few, if any, black elected officials were elected anywhere in the South.

    Because of the Voting Rights Act, there are now more than 10,000 black elected officials, including 46 members of Congress, the largest number ever.

    The Voting Rights Act opened the political process for many other minorities, including over 6,000 Latino elected officials and almost 1,000 Asian American elected officials.

    Native Americans and others who have historically encountered harsh barriers to full political participation also have benefited greatly.

    Aided by Section 5, the Voting Rights Act was successful in preventing the states with the worst and most egregious records of voter suppression and intimidation from disenfranchising minority voters.

    So successful in fact that the Supreme Court apparently saw no harm in invalidating the provision that subjected those states to the federal supervision responsible for the success it celebrated.

    Now to be sure, the Supreme Court did not invalidate the preclearance provisions of Section 5; it only invalidated Section 4(b).

    But that is like leaving the car undamaged but destroying the key that unlocks the doors and starts the engine.

    According to the Court, the coverage formula in Section 4(b) had to be struck down because the data upon which it was based--registration rates and turn-out gaps--was too old and outdated.

    But my colleagues in Congress and I refused to let the Voting Rights Act die--as states all across the nation had already begun implementing restrictive voting laws that would keep thousands of citizens away from the polls.

    After months of hard work, consultation, negotiation, and collaboration, we were able to produce the ``Voting Rights Amendment Act'' which sets out to achieve these goals.

    I was an original cosponsor when this bill was first introduced in 2014 (H.R. 3899), and again when it was reintroduced in 2015 (H.R. 885).

    To be sure, this legislation is not perfect, no bill ever is.

    But--and this is important--the bill represents an important step forward because it: is responsive to the concern expressed by the Supreme Court; and establishes a new coverage formula that is carefully tailored but sufficiently potent to protect the voting rights of all Americans.

    First, the Voting Rights Amendment Act specifies a new coverage formula that is based on current problems in voting and therefore directly responds to the Court's concern that the previous formula was outdated.

    The importance of this feature is hard to overestimate. Legislators and litigators understand that the likelihood of the Court upholding an amended statute that fails to correct the provision previously found to be defective is very low and indeed.

    The Voting Rights Amendment Act replaces the old ``static'' coverage formula with a new dynamic coverage formula, or ``rolling trigger,'' which works as follows: For states, it requires at least one finding of discrimination at the state level and at least four adverse findings by its sub-jurisdictions within the previous 15 years; For political subdivisions, it requires at least three adverse findings within the previous 15 years; but Political subdivisions with ``persistent and extremely low a minority voter turnout,'' can also be covered if they have a single adverse finding of discrimination.

    The effect of the ``rolling trigger'' mechanism effectively gives the legislation nationwide reach because any state and any jurisdiction [[Page H2953]] in any state potentially is subject to being covered if the requisite number of violations are found to have been committed.

    Prior to Shelby Co. v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act covered 16 states in whole or in part, including most of the states in the Deep South.

    The states that would be covered initially under the new bill are: Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina.

    To compensate for the fact that fewer jurisdictions are covered, our bill also includes several key provisions that are consistent with the needs created by a narrower Section 5 trigger.

    For example, the Voting Rights Amendment Act: Expands judicial ``bail-in'' authority under Section 3 so that it applies to voting changes that result in discrimination (not just intentional discrimination); Requires nationwide transparency of ``late breaking'' voting changes; allocation of poll place resources; and changes within the boundaries of voting districts; Clarifies and expands the ability of plaintiffs to seek a preliminary injunction against voting discrimination; and Clarifies and expands Attorney General's authority to send election observers to protect against voting discrimination.

    This bipartisan compromise legislation is not ideal--but on the balance, it represents a step forward as we continue to fight for enforcement of our most fundamental right: the right to vote.

    Additional measures introduced to help protect and enforce our right to vote include the Voter Empowerment Act and the Coretta Scott King Mid-Decade Redistricting Prohibition Act.

    The Voting Empowerment Act was introduced to help ensure equal access to the ballot for every eligible voter.

    The Voting Empowerment Act was designed to protect voters from suppression, deception and other forms of disenfranchisement by modernizing voter registration, promoting access to voting for individuals with disabilities, and protecting the ability of individuals to exercise the right to vote in elections for Federal office.

    This legislation would expand and protect citizens' access to the polls and would increase accountability and integrity among elected officials and poll workers.

    It would also expand eligibility to allow all ex-offenders who have been released from prison (even those who may still be on probation on parole) the opportunity to register and vote in federal elections.

    Outlined in 13 Title sections, this bill prioritizes access, integrity and accountability for voters.

    I have also introduced H.R. 75 (originally introduced in 2013 as H.R. 2490) which prohibits any state whose congressional districts have been redistricted after a decennial census from carrying out another redistricting until after the next decennial census, unless a court requires such state to conduct a subsequent redistricting to comply with the Constitution or enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is no ordinary piece of legislation.

    For millions of Americans, and many of us in Congress, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a sacred treasure, earned by the sweat and toil and tears and blood of ordinary Americans who showed the world it was possible to accomplish extraordinary things.

    Please know that I am as committed to the preservation of the Voting Rights Act and I will not rest until the job is done.

    As I stated in 2006, during the historic debate in Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965: I stand today an heir of the Civil Rights Movement, a beneficiary of the Voting Rights Act. I would be breaking faith with those who risked all and gave all to secure for my generation the right to vote if I did not do all I can to strengthen the Voting Rights Act so that it will forever keep open doors that shut out so many for so long.

    With these legislative priorities and principles at the forefront, I intend to work with my colleagues and advocates to do all I can to protect the voting rights of all Americans.

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