Bronx, NY – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Congressmen José E. Serrano and Eliot Engel were joined today at the Bronx County Courthouse by State Senator José Serrano, Assemblymen Carl Heastie and Luis Sepulveda, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and the Puerto Rican Bar Association in calling on Congressional leaders of both chambers to pass a bipartisan legislative solution this year to restore the Voting Rights Act in advance of the upcoming 2014 midterm elections to protect voters from discrimination and ensure that all Americans have full and equal access to the ballot box. This past June, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone provision that sets the preclearance formula used to determine which state and local jurisdictions must receive federal pre-approval before changing their voting laws. With the dismantling of the Section 4 formula, there is an increased likelihood of discrimination through redistricting, voting location changes, new voter ID laws, reduced early voting periods in many areas of the country. The court ruling removes major federal legal protections for New York City voters – since 1968, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx had been covered jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act. Gillibrand’s letter to Majority Leader Reid, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi was co-signed by Representatives José Serrano, Eliot Engel, Charles Rangel, Joseph Crowley, Yvette Clarke, Nydia Velázquez, Jerrold Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, Gregory Meeks, and Hakeem Jeffries.
Gillibrand is also pushing for passage of The Voter Empowerment Act, legislation she reintroduced in the Senate this year authored by Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis that would modernize our voter registration system to help more Americans participate, and take steps to eliminate deceptive practices and voter fraud that deter voters from casting their ballots. Earlier this year, Gillibrand traveled to Selma, Alabama with Rep. Lewis, many of her Congressional colleagues, and other civil rights leaders to participate in the annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The trip included the re-enactment of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which Rep. Lewis led nearly 50 years ago as a civil rights activist.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling was a significant setback,” Senator Gillibrand said. “The Voting Rights Act has been a cornerstone in ensuring the rights won in the Civil Rights movement continue to stand strong today. Congress must come together and act quickly to restore legal protections for voters throughout the Bronx and across the nation. Dr. Martin Luther King often spoke about the fierce urgency of now; now is the time to protect the voting rights battles that have already been won, and to press for new protections. Ensuring that every vote counts and every American has equal access to the ballot box should be a cornerstone of our democracy embraced by both sides of the aisle.”
In a letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the elected officials wrote, “It is absolutely imperative that members of Congress work expeditiously to draft an updated formula that would be worthy of the democracy we are honored to represent. Some lawmakers have already moved to reinstate voting changes that have previously been found to have violated the Voting Rights Act. Now, more than ever, it is critical that Congress acts quickly to update and pass new legislation that restores provisions of the Voting Rights Act before these discriminatory voting changes can have an impact on the 2014 elections.”
“The Voting Rights Act was a key achievement of the Civil Rights movement, and protected several generations of voters from unconstitutional behavior,” said Congressman Serrano. “In the wake of the Supreme Court decision that effectively ended its protections, we in Congress must rewrite the law and ensure that no one is prevented from voting for any unlawful reason. In the world’s greatest democracy, there can be no plausible reason not to protect our voters and their rights.”
“Congress needs to act this year so that there is a guarantee of equal access to the polls for all Americans – no matter their race or their national origin,” said Congressman Engel. “In 2006, Congress members, Republicans and Democrats, voted overwhelmingly – 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate – to renew the Voting Rights Act. The world is not so different today. Congress must be able to agree, again, that the right to vote is sacred and must be protected. While states which once trampled on the rights of African-Americans and other minorities may have improved over time, there is no reason to scrap the checks and balances which worked so well for five decades.”
“Voting is the most fundamental right in our democratic system and the Supreme Court’s decision undermines our effort to end voting discrimination,” said Assemblyman Heastie. “Congress must act immediately to restore the protections granted in the Voting Rights Act. It is our duty to ensure that African Americans and Latinos are able to participate fully in our democracy.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate one of the core provisions of the Voting Rights Act is a hard blow to the peace of mind of thousands of voters in the Bronx, which is a county covered by the Voting Rights Act, and minorities across the United States, especially those who live in places with a strong history of electoral discrimination,” said Bronx Borough President Diaz Jr. “I believe Congress should do the right thing and pass legislation to guarantee all Americans the right to participate in fair elections. I also support Senator Gillibrand’s Voter Empowerment Act, and believe this legislation will help strengthen voter protection to ensure a fair and equal voting process for Bronxites and all who vote, live and raise their families in this great nation.”
“The right to vote for all Americans is the cornerstone of a truly representative government,” said State Senator Serrano. “The recent decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the Voting Rights Act weakens our democracy and upends important policies that have been vital in ensuring equality among voters. We cannot allow this ruling to set us back. My hope is that Congress will act quickly to rewrite the law so all Americans have the same right to participate in elections.”
“It is unsurprising that immediately after the Supreme Court struck portions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder, invidious voter suppression practices were enacted,” PR Bar Association President Elba Galvan said. “Our nation deserves better. Restoring federal review of election law changes is vital to ensure that everyone has the right to vote and that their vote counts.”
“There is no right more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote,” said Arva Rice, President and CEO of the New York Urban League. “The Supreme Court of the United States made a tragic decision regarding Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act was necessary in 1965 and remains so in 2013. The voter suppression tactics employed by numerous states in the 2012 election are evidence to this fact. This decision by the Supreme Court has the potential to contract democracy, and we are pleased that our Senator is leading the way to address this issue.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 mandates federal review of changes to the city’s election laws, the redrawing of district lines, written language assistance and polling site relocations, among others. In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, stating that the formula for Section 4—the map that determines which states and localities must get federal permission before they change their voting laws—is outdated. Under the past formula, 9 states, 12 cities, and 57 counties with a history of discrimination at the polls were required to get Justice Department approval before making changes to their voting laws – including the counties of Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. The Voting Rights Act has been regularly reauthorized since 1965 with overwhelming bipartisan support.
New York City has come a long way since the 1960s, when the Voting Rights Act invalidated statewide literacy tests that disenfranchised many New Yorkers. But challenges still remain. Due to the Voting Rights Act, and the preclearance formula mandated by Section 4 of the law, over a 15 year-period ending in 2005, New York City withdrew more than four dozen proposed changes to its voting procedures after the Department of Justice requested more details. As recently as last year, federal observers monitored polling places in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens. Across the country, just last year alone, Section 5 helped prevent discrimination on controversial issues ranging from voter ID’s to redistricting and early voting. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling two months ago, six states previously covered by the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance rule are already pushing ahead with stricter voter ID requirements, which make it disproportionally harder for seniors, students, minorities and those of low-income households to vote.
In addition to urging Congress to come together on the Voting Rights Act, Senator Gillibrand also called for measures to strengthen voter protections and bring our election process into the 21st century. The Senator urged Congressional leaders to pass the Voter Empowerment Act, which would modernize voter registration, ensure equal access to the ballot box for all Americans and prohibit deceptive practices and voter fraud that keep people from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Senator Gillibrand teamed up with civil rights leader Representative John Lewis (GA-5) on this legislation, which contains three main sections: improving access to the ballot, protecting the integrity of voting systems, and ensuring accountability in elections.
Specifically, the Voter Empowerment Act would:
Open access to the ballot box by:
- Modernizing the voter registration system
- Authorizing an online registration option
- Authorizing same-day registration and permitting voters to update their registration data onsite
- Providing additional tools to alleviate any additional burdens for people with disabilities
- Requiring all universities that receive federal funds to offer and encourage voter registration to their students
- Simplifying registration and ensuring that ballots from all military personnel serving overseas are counted
Ensure integrity of process by:
- Authorizing funds for training poll workers and setting standards for polling place practices
- Requiring provisional ballots be available and counted at all polling places
- Prohibiting voter caging and designating it as a felony
- Protecting against deceptive practices and intimidation
Protect accountability of result by:
- Establishing a national voter hotline to ensure timely reporting and corrective action of voting related issues
- Setting standards for voting machines to ensure accurate tabulation and confirmation of voter intent paper copy verification
- Reauthorizing the Election Assistance Commission to ensure that the highest standards are being met nationwide to guarantee fair elections
- The Voter Empowerment Act is supported by civil rights groups across the country including the NAACP, Project Vote, DEMOS, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, FairVote, Common Cause, and National Association of Social Workers.
Full text of the letter is below:
Dear Leader Reid, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi,
As you are aware, on June 25th, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, the formula used to determine which state and local governments must receive federal pre-approval before changing their voting laws. This was an extremely disappointing ruling that essentially gutted a key provision of one of the most important and effective laws passed during the Civil Rights Era. Although other valuable provisions of the Act remain, none would proactively work to address voting discrimination on the state and local level as effectively as the preclearance provision. As we head into the fall it is our sincere hope that both House and Senate leaders will continue to work with their members to work together on a bipartisan and bicameral effort to preserve the original spirit of the Voting Rights Act and the preclearance provision specifically. With the elimination of the formula, voting changes that could disenfranchise voters or dilute their votes, could be put in place and have a real impact on elections and governance before the law could catch up. It was to address this precise problem that Congress enacted the preclearance provisions of Section 5. A bipartisan solution is needed in advance of the 2014 federal elections in order to protect voters from discrimination and ensure that all voters have full and equal access to the ballot.
The Court acknowledged in its decision that voting discrimination still exists. When the Congress overwhelmingly re-authorized the law on a bipartisan basis in 2006, as it has overwhelmingly done on a bipartisan basis during the prior reauthorizations in 1970, 1975, and 1982, it was after a thorough examination by Congress that persistent discrimination based on past practice and ongoing discrimination still existed. The Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent the disenfranchisement of voters by ensuring equal access to the ballot box, and to ensure that their votes are not diluted. While the country has changed dramatically since 1965, it would be naïve to believe that discrimination no longer exists. The VRA continues to protect voting rights for millions of Americans even as recently as the 2012 elections. Section 5 of the law has effectively and without undue burden, prevented discriminatory practices in elections. In our state, an examination of the 15-year period ending in 2005 shows that New York City withdrew more than four dozen proposed changes to its voting procedures after the Department of Justice requested more details.
It is absolutely imperative that members of Congress work expeditiously to draft an updated formula that would be worthy of the democracy we are honored to represent. Some lawmakers have already moved to reinstate voting changes that have previously been found to have violated the Voting Rights Act. Now, more than ever, it is critical that Congress acts quickly to update and pass new legislation that restores provisions of the Voting Rights Act before these discriminatory voting changes can have an impact on the 2014 elections.
While we are encouraged that the Senate and House have held hearings, and commend the leaders and members of those Committees for their commitment to holding additional hearings, if Congress does not act swiftly to move forward with implementing a fix future discriminatory voting changes will move forward without review. We cannot afford to let this happen. We ask that you work with us and our colleagues to bring a legislative solution to the floor of the Congress before the end of the year. We will continue to press our colleagues to move forward and we ask that you join us in that effort. Our democracy demands it, and the American people deserve no less. The right to vote, and to have your vote count, is the defining element in our democracy, and we must all work to protect it.