(Senate - June 22, 2017)

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[Pages S3733-S3734]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []


      By Mr. LEAHY (for himself, Mr. Durbin, Ms. Baldwin, Mr. Bennet, 
        Mr. Blumenthal, Mr. Booker, Mr. Brown, Ms. Cantwell, Mr. 
        Cardin, Mr. Carper, Mr. Casey, Mr. Coons, Ms. Cortez Masto, Mr. 
        Donnelly, Ms. Duckworth, Mrs. Feinstein, Mr. Franken, Mrs. 
        Gillibrand, Ms. Harris, Ms. Hassan, Mr. Heinrich, Ms. Heitkamp, 
        Ms. Hirono, Mr. Kaine, Mr. King, Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Markey, 
        Mrs. McCaskill, Mr. Menendez, Mr. Merkley, Mr. Murphy, Mrs. 
        Murray, Mr. Nelson, Mr. Peters, Mr. Reed, Mr. Sanders, Mr. 
        Schatz, Mr. Schumer, Mrs. Shaheen, Ms. Stabenow, Mr. Tester, 
        Mr. Udall, Mr. Van Hollen, Mr. Warner, Ms. Warren, Mr. 
        Whitehouse, and Mr. Wyden):
  S. 1419. A bill to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to revise the 
criteria for determining which States and political subdivisions are 
subject to section 4 of the Act, and for other purposes; to the 
Committee on the Judiciary.
  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, four years ago, a narrow majority of the 
Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby 
County v. Holder. That 5 to 4 decision crippled the Federal 
government's ability to protect minority, elderly, and disadvantaged 
voters across the country. The impact of this disastrous ruling has 
been even worse than imagined.
  Before the ink even dried on the Court's opinion, Republican 
officials in several States rushed to enact laws making it harder for 
minorities to vote. Prior to Shelby County, the Federal government had 
the ability to prevent racial discriminatory voting changes from taking 
effect before those changes occur. Proposed laws and new voting 
procedures would first have been reviewed by the Federal courts or the 
Department of Justice to ensure that voting rights would not be harmed 
if the changes went into effect. But without the full protections of 
the Voting Rights Act after Shelby County, discriminatory laws quickly 
passed Republican legislatures in several States.
  Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion in Shelby County noted 

[[Page S3734]]

times that the protections of the Voting Rights Act are no longer 
appropriate because our ``Country has changed.'' It is true that our 
Nation has changed--we have made progress. But there is no question 
that the scourge of racial discrimination still exists. There are still 
those within our society intent on suppressing the right to vote and 
keeping minorities from exercising their constitutional right to 
participate in our democracy. Since the Shelby County ruling--and now 
emboldened by the Trump Administration--these forces are more 
concerning than they have been in decades.
  Unfortunately, what has transpired in the aftermath of the Shelby 
County decision makes the need for the full protections of the Voting 
Rights Act unmistakably clear. Voter suppression efforts have found 
renewed life in numerous jurisdictions across the country. Thankfully, 
in some cases the courts have been able to provide a backstop. Based on 
strong evidence that hundreds of thousands of minority voters have been 
disproportionately prevented or discouraged from voting by Republican-
enacted voting restrictions, Federal courts have blocked or rolled back 
many of these laws. Importantly, Federal courts have repeatedly found 
that these States enacted laws with the intention to discriminate.
  Just last month, the Supreme Court left in place the Fourth Circuit 
Court of Appeals ruling that blocked North Carolina's harsh voting 
restrictions, including a strict photo identification law. The Fourth 
Circuit concluded that the Republican legislature had passed the law 
with the intent to racially discriminate against African Americans, and 
found that ``the new provisions target African Americans with almost 
surgical precision.''
  In April of this year, Federal district court ruled for a second time 
that Texas's photo ID law was enacted with the intent to racially 
discriminate and had a racially discriminatory effect on Hispanic and 
Black voters. This ruling came after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals 
reaffirmed that the Texas law should be struck down because of its 
discriminatory effect on minority voters. But just weeks ago, the 
Republican-led Texas legislature and Governor enacted a new law in an 
attempt to escape the court's rulings.
  Federal courts in Kansas and North Dakota have also acted as a 
bulwark against attempts by Republican officials to disenfranchise 
minority voters. In Kansas; courts have issued rulings rejecting 
repeated attempts by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach from making 
voter registration more difficult. In North Dakota, a Federal district 
court held that the State's strict photo ID law disproportionately 
burdened Native Americans and blocked its implementation in the 2016 
  These decisions are only the tip of the iceberg of what has 
transpired since Shelby County. While our courts are acting to guard 
against attempts to block minorities from accessing the ballot box, 
each of these cases requires years of litigation, money, and resources. 
And these are just the voting changes Republicans are enacting at the 
State level. Many of the efforts at the local level have gone unnoticed 
but have equally devastating effects on the voting rights of 
  The original Voting Rights Act would have prevented many of these 
discriminatory laws. But the Supreme Court's decision has taken this 
country back to an era before the Civil Rights movement--a bad time in 
our history where some states openly discriminated against minority 
voters. We are constantly reminded how costly the fight for voting and 
civil rights has been in this country. Just yesterday, we marked the 
53rd anniversary of three civil rights activists who were killed in 
Mississippi for registering minorities to vote. James Chaney, Michael 
Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman gave their lives in 1964 when they were 
murdered while fighting in Mississippi for racial equality and free 
access to the ballot box. Their example, and the example of generations 
of civil rights activists who gave their sweat, blood, and sometimes 
their lives must inspire us and drive us to do more. It is now 
imperative for us to do everything in our power to correct the Shelby 
County decision and reinstate the full protections of the Voting Rights 
Act for the next generation.
  The legislation I am introducing today would restore and update the 
Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2017 not only 
modernizes the Voting Rights Act in response to Shelby County, it also 
modernizes the law to provide tools to combat current forms of voter 
discrimination. This bill responds to calls from community leaders and 
grassroots activists working in communities whose voting rights have 
been threatened or suppressed. It responds to voting rights experts and 
civil rights leader who have called for strong legislation to counter 
the voter intimidation and patently discriminatory efforts that were 
unleashed after the Shelby County ruling.
  I am proud to introduce this bill with forty-six original cosponsors, 
nearly every single member of the Democratic caucus. I am also proud to 
be joined by Senator Durbin, who worked with me to reauthorize the 
Voting Rights Act in 2006. In addition, the House of Representatives is 
today introducing a companion bill led by Congresswoman Terri Sewell, 
Congresswoman Judy Chu, Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, my friend 
Congressman John Lewis, and over 175 members of the House Democratic 
  We are all joining together to introduce this bill today because we 
will not let systematic and persistent efforts to suppress Americans' 
right to vote go unchecked. We will not stand idly by while this 
country reverts to a bygone era where it was acceptable to 
disenfranchise our own citizens because they were Black, Hispanic, or 
disadvantaged. These unconstitutional and discriminatory efforts 
deserve a strong response.
  Protecting Americans' constitutional right to vote is not a partisan 
exercise. The original enactment and every reauthorization of the 
Voting Rights Act has always been bipartisan. When we last reauthorized 
the Voting Rights Act in 2006, I worked closely with the Republican 
chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees--former Senator 
Arlen Specter and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner. And past 
reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act have been signed into law by 
Republican presidents.
  But now, the Republican majority--in both the House and the Senate--
refuses to protect the right to vote, restore the Voting Rights Act, or 
address other critical civil rights issues. Since the Shelby County 
decision, Republicans at every level of our government have acted to 
make it harder to vote. This has become the legacy of today's 
Republican Party. They should think seriously about reversing course, 
rather than trying to reverse the gains we have made in history. One 
significant step would be to join with us to pass the Voting Rights 
Advancement Act to restore the historic and critically-needed 
protections of this landmark civil rights law.