A picture of Senator Richard J. Durbin
Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Shelby County V. Holder

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2013-02-28

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    DURBIN. Madam President, in 2005, I was honored to join Congressman John Lewis on a trip to Selma, AL, for a ceremonial walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 40th anniversary of what has come to be known as ``Bloody Sunday.'' In March of 1965, Congressman Lewis, Rev. Hosea Williams, and 600 other brave civil rights activists led a voting rights march over that bridge.

    These courageous men, women, and children were marching for civil rights and voting rights. All they would receive that day, however, were beatings and bruises from police batons as they were turned back and chased down by State troopers.

    A few days after ``Bloody Sunday,'' President Johnson addressed the Nation and called on the House and the Senate to pass the Voting Rights Act.

    Shortly thereafter, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, guaranteeing that the fundamental right to vote would never again be canceled out by clever schemes--like poll taxes and literacy tests-- devised to keep African Americans from voting.

    The Voting Rights Act is the cornerstone of the civil rights movement and one of the most effective laws on the books when it comes to protecting the right to vote for all Americans.

    On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the constitutionality of section 5, which is the very heart of the Voting Rights Act.

    That section requires jurisdictions in all or part of 16 States with a history of discrimination to get approval from the Department of Justice or a Federal court before making any changes to congressional districts or voting procedures.

    This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has heard a challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Though it has been subject to four prior Supreme Court challenges, the Voting Rights Act has always emerged intact and on sound legal and constitutional ground.

    Each of the four times that the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized--in 1970, 1975, 1982, and most recently in 2006--Congress has done so with the broad bipartisan support and overwhelming majorities that are all too rare these days.

    That is because protecting the right to vote should not be a partisan prerogative. It is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is a fundamental right for every eligible voter, and it is a core value of our American democracy.

    In 2006, the House of Representatives voted 390 to 33 in favor of reauthorizing the law. The Senate voted unanimously, 98 to 0, to reauthorize the law. And the final bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

    There was good reason for this bipartisan support for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. Congress developed an extensive record, holding 21 hearings, reviewing more than 15,000 pages in the Congressional Record, and hearing from more than 90 witnesses about the need to reauthorize the law.

    Conservative Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner is one example. Congressman Sensenbrenner was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act. He strongly believes that section 5 is constitutional, and he has filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the law.

    My hope is that the Supreme Court will look at the extensive evidence Congress reviewed in 2006 and defer to the judgment of an overwhelming majority of the House and a unanimous Senate.

    The Court should affirm the constitutionality of this critical tool for protecting the right to vote.

    We all acknowledge the progress that our great country has made on civil rights and voting rights issues. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., is a symbol and timely reminder that our Nation has indeed grown to be more perfect--and more inclusive in many ways--than just a few generations ago.

    We are not yet, however, a perfect union. And some of the jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act have both a demonstrated history and a contemporary record of implementing discriminatory restrictions on voting.

    The Voting Rights Act has been essential in securing the progress we have made as a nation over the last five decades.

    And as my Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights found during a series of hearings last Congress, the Voting Rights Act remains a relevant and critical tool in protecting the right to vote.

    [[Page S1001]] After a careful analysis of new voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, the Department of Justice used its authority under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to object to the implementation of new photo identification requirements.

    In Texas, according to the State's own data, more than 790,000 registered voters did not have the ID required to vote under the new Texas law.

    That law would have had a disproportionate impact on Latino voters because 38.2 percent of registered Hispanic voters did not have the type of ID required by the law.

    In South Carolina, the State's own data indicated that almost 240,000 registered voters did not have the identification required to vote under the State's new law.

    That included 10 percent of all registered minorities in South Carolina who would not be able to vote under the new law.

    That is more than 1 million registered voters who would have been turned away from the polls in Texas and South Carolina if the Department of Justice did not have the authority to object to those photo identification laws under the Voting Rights Act.

    Opponents of the Voting Rights Act claim that some of the jurisdictions covered by the law should no longer be subject to it.

    They rarely mention, however, that the Voting Rights Act itself contains a provision allowing jurisdictions to ``bail out'' or be excused from coverage under the law if they demonstrate compliance with the law for the previous 10 years.

    In 2006, the Supreme Court clarified and expanded this bailout provision.

    As a result, more than 190 jurisdictions have bailed out of coverage under the Voting Rights Act. The fact that so many jurisdictions have been excused from coverage under the law proves two very important points.

    First, the Voting Rights Act is having its intended effect. States and localities that previously had a record of discriminating against minority voters are no longer doing so thanks to the scrutiny of the Voting Rights Act.

    Second, the Voting Rights Act is not over-inclusive. Jurisdictions that can prove they are not discriminating--over a reasonable period of time--will be excused from coverage under the law.

    The Voting Rights Act is not about who wins an election. It is not about political advantage. It is about ensuring that every eligible American can vote and that their vote will be counted.

    As long as there continues to be evidence that some people are being denied the right to vote, we have an obligation to remedy that problem.

    The Voting Rights Act has done its job of protecting the right to vote for almost 50 years. Congress did its job in 2006 by developing an extensive record and reauthorizing the law in an overwhelming and bipartisan manner.

    It is my hope the Supreme Court will now do its job and affirm the constitutionality of this critical law.


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