Freedom to Vote Act

Floor Speech

Date: Jan. 7, 2022
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. KAINE. Mr. President, I am so proud to be on the floor with my colleagues Senator Durbin, Senator Merkley, and Senator Klobuchar to work on this issue of such great importance.

I would like to now discuss the John Lewis Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, critical voting rights proposals that the Senate will soon take up and that the Senate needs to pass. We have tried to bring these bills to the floor in recent months. The minority party has blocked the effort to even consider the bills, with the sole exception of one Republican, the senior Senator from Alaska, who has been willing to vote to proceed to consideration of the John Lewis Act.

Some of the most epic moments in the history of this Chamber have come as we grappled with voting rights. After the Civil War, the debate surrounding the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were epic struggles about the Nation's new recommitment to the equality principle after the Civil War, and those struggles included dramatic discussions about voting connected to both the 14th and 15th Amendments. The struggle for women's suffrage, culminating in the 1919 passage of the 19th Amendment in the Senate, was also a pivotal moment for this body.

I believe the most dramatic voting rights struggle in the Chamber was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Civil rights activist John Lewis and others marching for voting rights were savagely beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, in March of 1965. The building frustration of those denied votes in many States, together with that shocking instance of violence, coalesced into a final push to get a comprehensive voting rights bill approved. President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress on March 15, just 8 days after the attack on John Lewis, and he threw his support behind the Voting Rights Act.

The Senate began floor consideration of the bill on April 22. After more than a month of vigorous debating, filibustering, fighting, and amending, the bill passed, and it passed in a dramatically bipartisan fashion. Democratic support was 47 to 16. Republican support was overwhelming--30 to 2. The House passed its own version in July. A conference report was passed and then accepted by both Houses in early August. President Johnson then signed the bill in a ceremony attended by Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, and many other legislative and civil rights leaders.

The Voting Rights Act that was fought for so hard in this Chamber and passed in 1965 is viewed as the most important piece of civil rights legislation in the history of this country. It ushered in dramatic increases in voter turnout, more opportunity for racial minorities not only to vote but also to run for office.

Studies have drawn a direct connection between the act and concrete actions to provide more government services to communities that had long suffered from public disinvestment. It is obvious: When all citizens are protected in their right to vote, then government becomes more responsive to all citizens.

The 1965 act was strongly bipartisan, both in its passage and in the frequent reauthorization over the years, most recently in 2006. But since 2006--really beginning with the Obama Presidency--the Republican Party has essentially done a 180 in its long support of expanding the franchise. Hostile Supreme Court rulings in Shelby v. Mississippi and Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee have put the burden back on Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act. But, in contrast to previous history where Republicans would join with us in those efforts, efforts to fix or improve the act have foundered because now the Republican Party is unwilling to support voting rights.

I talk about the 1965 act because it is notable to me for two reasons. First, it came at a time when many States, primarily in the South, including my own Commonwealth of Virginia, were undertaking massive efforts to disenfranchise African-American voters. And there was a culminating event--shocking violence against John Lewis and others as they tried to press for voting rights, and that violence galvanized the Nation and this body into action so we could protect voting and protect our democracy.

History repeats itself. Today, we are seeing a full-out attack on voting and our entire electoral system. Now it is not just limited to Southern States. Now it is not just directed solely at African-American voters. Now it is not just an attack led by bigoted State or local officials in one region. The attack emanated from the previous President, with years of attacks on the integrity of American elections--attacks that ratcheted up in the closing phase of the 2020 election.

President Trump, after losing that race, then went on a wild search for a way to hold on to power, making up lies about the election, spearheading meritless lawsuits in many States to challenge the result, directly asking election officials to ``find'' him enough votes to win key jurisdictions, and even trying to strong-arm his own Vice President into violating his constitutional oath so that he would deliver a victory to the losing candidate.

Just as in 1965, there came an unforgettable episode of violence directly related to the attacks on our system of elections. The Capitol itself was attacked on a particular day and hour for a particular purpose: to stop the certification of the electoral outcome. More than 100 police officers were injured that day as a result of this attack on our democracy. Five Virginia law enforcement officers lost their lives as a result of that day.

The violence wasn't just a riot; it was violence designed to disenfranchise the 80 million people who had voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. That singular event ranks among the largest disenfranchisement efforts in the history of this country.

History repeats itself, and the attacks on our democracy continue. In Republican State legislatures all across this country, as has been demonstrated by my colleague from Minnesota, efforts are underway to restrict voting, to make it harder for people to vote if they are more likely to vote for Democrats, to make it easier to challenge and intimidate voters with the hope that it will discourage their participation, to interfere with the counting of votes, and to interfere with the certification of elections by duly-sworn election officials. These are partisan efforts only occurring in States with Republican leadership, and they pose a grave threat to our democracy.

The violence of January 6 also continues in a tremendous spike in threats to those public servants who serve as election officials-- threats to their lives, threats to their families--all designed to intimidate those who won't bend to the will of the former President and those who have been dragged into his full-scale assault on our democracy.

So the Senate stands at the same moral crossroads where we stood in the spring of 1965. There is an assault on voting and elections, on the very system of democracy that distinguishes our Nation. The assault has led to shocking and cataclysmic violence specifically designed to disenfranchise millions of people, and the question for the Senate is, What should we do about it?

In the John Lewis Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, we find a solution for the moment, just as the Senate found in the Voting Rights Act a solution for its time.

The Lewis Act restores the preclearance process contained in section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by coming up with a fair process for determining which jurisdictions must seek preclearance of voting changes. No longer is preclearance limited to certain geographies or States with long histories of discriminatory electoral practice; instead, every region and community is treated the same, subject to preclearance for a fixed period of years following any voting rights violation and able to avoid preclearance if there have been no such violations.

The Freedom to Vote Act sets minimal standards for access to the ballot in Federal elections, mandates transparency in campaign contributions, requires nonpartisan redistricting for congressional seats, and provides remedies to block partisan efforts to take power away from duly-sworn election officials. It is designed for the dangers of the moment and will both protect people's right to vote and give them confidence that their vote will be counted and an election result will be accurate and fair.

It is high time we take up these bills and pass them, and the floor debate should be vigorous, with an opportunity for colleagues to make their case and offer amendments. The Nation is watching us and needs to understand where every Member of the body stands on this critical issue.

I acknowledge one sad reality of this likely debate. Protecting voting rights is unlikely to attract Republican support as it did in 1965. I hope I am wrong. I would be very happy to apologize for being wrong, but I have had enough conversations with my Republican colleagues, and I watched their votes on the floor as we brought these matters up before. I think I understand what they will likely do. But even if we get no Republican support, we cannot shrink from the task. The stakes are too high and the moment is too meaningful to allow for any evasion. If we pass this bill, it will be good for Republicans and Democrats and Independents because it is good for democracy.

As I close, I will just bring up a recent example to show why expanding voting is not just good for one party. We just had a Governor's election in Virginia, November 2021. My preferred Democratic candidate lost, but the election, in a bigger way, was good for democracy because the turnout in the election went up by 25 percent over the turnout in the Governor's race 4 years before. More people participated, and that is a good thing.

Why did the turnout go up? The turnout went up because Democrats earned control of both houses of our State legislative chamber and made a set of changes--much like the changes in the Freedom to Vote Act--to make it easier for people to participate and give them confidence in the integrity of the ballot and certification of results. Guess what. When Democrats did that, turnout went up by 25 percent. And the winner wasn't a Democrat; the winner was a Republican.

Doing things like the Freedom to Vote Act isn't partisan, even though the vote in here will be partisan. It is good for all.

That increase in turnout by almost 25 percent almost set a record in Virginia. There was only one Governor's race where the turnout jump was even bigger, and it was when my father-in-law was elected Governor of Virginia in 1969. My father-in-law, Linwood Holton, had run as a Republican for Governor in 1965 and lost. He ran again in 1969 and won, and the turnout went up by 65 percent between his two races. That is the one that sets the record in Virginia. Why did turnout go up? Because the Voting Rights Act was passed and because the U.S. Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia in 1966 struck down poll taxes as a precondition of voting in State elections.

So fancy that. You make it easier for people to vote, you remove discriminatory obstacles in their way, and more people participate--not necessarily good for Democrats, not always good for Republicans, but always good for the health of a democracy. That is why we need to pass these bills.