A picture of Representative Terri A. Sewell
Terri S.
Democrat AL 7

About Rep. Terri
  • Democracy in Crisis

    by Representative Terri A. Sewell

    Posted on 2016-05-23

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    SEWELL of Alabama. Mr. Speaker, I would like to commend my distinguished colleague from New York and my distinguished colleague, the gentlewoman from Ohio, for this wonderful hour of power on voting. It is my great honor to stand with them, to rise today and to join with my CBC colleagues to discuss the reckless Republican assault on the right to vote in America.

    We began tonight by bringing attention to the ever-evolving crisis brewing in our democracy. Since the Supreme Court in the Shelby decision gutted the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there has been nothing short of an assault on the right to vote-- the most sacred right to vote. This 2016 election will be the first time in my lifetime and, I daresay, in the lifetime of the gentleman from New York, that we will have a Presidential election in which there will not be the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    As the gentleman so rightly acknowledged, I welcomed, in 2015, 100 Members of Congress, both Republican and Democratic, to my hometown of Selma, Alabama, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the historic Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery, where people shed blood and tears. Our own colleague, John Lewis, was bludgeoned on that bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 50-some years ago in order to have the right to vote for all Americans.

    On that day, Republicans and Democrats held hands as we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge one more time, as John Lewis likes to say, this time on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. We all had a Kumbaya moment, if you will, but we came back to Congress and did nothing to try to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    I ask my colleagues, Mr. Speaker, have we really gone so far in the last 10 years? After all, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was amended and reauthorized five times, most recently in 2006 under a Republican President, President George Bush, who was with us on that glorious day on the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march to make sure that his support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was there.

    So I say to you, in 10 years since 2006 when we reauthorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965, overwhelmingly, in both Houses of Congress-- overwhelmingly--we reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. Had it not been for the Shelby decision which gutted section 5, which provided that preclearance formula, and made the full protections of the Voting Rights Act null and void, we would still be living under a regime where, as the gentleman so rightfully said, it was not only the Deep South States that were part of the coverage formula, but New York was part of the coverage formula as well.

    So the Supreme Court, in the Shelby decision, really issued a challenge to Congress to come up with a modern-day formula. The challenge was that we shouldn't hold States like Alabama and the Deep South for past discriminations that were so long ago, back in the 1950s and the 1960s and the 1940s, but, rather, we should come up with a modern-day formula.

    The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 does just that. I was privileged to introduce that bill along with my colleagues Linda Sanchez and Judy Chu; and Senator Leahy, on the Senate side, introduced that bill. It has a lookback not since the 1950s or 1960s, but it has a lookback of 25 years, since 1990 going forward. It says that if there have been five violations, statewide violations, that a State would be, then, opted in to preclearance if they had five.

    Do you know, Mr. Speaker, that not 1, but 13 States have had violations of voting discrimination over the last 25 years? Those States include California, New York, Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. Thirteen States would actually fall under the rubric.

    I think that it is really telling that we, in 2016, saw such long lines wrapped around Maricopa County, Arizona, most recently in March, during their Presidential election primary in March. Do you know why? Because Maricopa County used to be covered under the coverage formula for the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and since it no longer has any teeth and has been gutted, they could summarily close down polling stations.

    It shouldn't surprise you, Mr. Speaker, that in 2008, Maricopa County had 800 polling stations, in 2012 it went down to 400 polling stations, and for 2016, 60 polling stations--and those 60 polling stations covered the whole county of Maricopa County, Phoenix, Arizona. It was clearly not enough to get all of the folks who wanted to vote to be able to vote. They could close down those polling stations without any advance notification because there was no more Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    My own State of Alabama was one of those States that, after the Shelby decision, decided to institute a photo ID law. So many of my constituents came up to me and said: We need a photo ID to get on the plane these days. We need a photo ID to get a passport. Why shouldn't we need a photo? How is that in some way discriminatory? I had to remind many of our constituents that so many of our elderly, especially in the rural communities that I represent, many of whom were born by midwives, don't have birth certificates and can't actually readily prove a birth certificate in order to get a photo ID law. Some seniors and those who are disabled, like my father who no longer drives, therefore, he doesn't have a driver's license. He was a nine- time stroke victim--actually, a survivor. He is still with us today.

    But my dad was determined to get that photo ID in 2014 when Alabama's law came into effect. He was highly motivated, Mr. Speaker, because his daughter's name was on a ballot, and he wanted to be able to vote. I want you to know that it took my dad 5 hours to get a photo ID. Now, if that is not a barrier--you say to yourself: Five hours. Why would it take 5 hours? Well, Dallas County Courthouse is a courthouse that actually was grandfathered into the ADA laws and so did not have to have a ramp by which people who have wheelchairs can get readily into the courthouse. It had been grandfathered in. We were very blessed to have a gentleman help us get my dad up those seven stairs into the courthouse. But when we got into the courthouse, because the voter registration was on the second floor, we had to take an elevator upstairs.

    {time} 2045 Lo and behold, that particular day, the one elevator bank was what? [[Page H2949]] Actually out of service. Out of service.

    Now, my mom, having been a former member of the City Council in Selma and, obviously, a very well-known member of the citizens of Selma, she could go across the hall and talk to the probate judge's office and say: Look, we are here today to get this photo ID, this nondriving photo voter ID, so that my husband can vote.

    It took 1\1/2\ hours, but they got someone to service that elevator. And by the time that elevator was working and we got up to the second floor, lo and behold, it was 11:30. And guess what? Lunchtime.

    Now, I say to you, Mr. Speaker, we no longer have to count how many marbles are in a jar, we no longer have to recite all 67 counties in the State of Alabama in order to get a voter registration card, but we should not in America have to go through so many hoops in order to exercise the most fundamental right, the most sacred right of our democracy--the right to vote.

    And I say to you, Mr. Speaker, that any denial of access to the ballot box, to me, totally obfuscates and really undermines the integrity of the electoral process. If one person who wants to go out and vote has to stand in line for hours upon hours and can't actually physically stand in line because they have other obligations like children and day care and jobs, then it is unfair. We are actually limiting access to the ballot box, which actually goes to the integrity of our electoral process. It is fundamental to our democracy.

    So I say to you tonight, I am honored to join my CBC colleagues as we fight for the opportunity of all Americans to have equal access to the ballot box.

    Mr. Speaker, my State of Alabama, after having a photo ID requirement and during the State budgetary process, had the gall to actually decide to close down 30 Department of Motor Vehicle offices, which, as all of us know, the most popular form of photo ID is a driver's license. So to actually require a citizen to have a photo ID and then to close down DMV offices in rural parts of my district in the State of Alabama was really unconscionable.

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