Speech as prepared for delivery:
I rise to discuss the John Lewis Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, critical voting rights bills that the Senate will soon take up and pass. We have tried to bring these bills to the floor in recent months. The minority party has blocked the effort to even consider these bills, save for 1 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 important moments in the history of this body have come as we grappled with voting rights. After the Civil War, the debates surrounding the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were epic struggles about the nation's recommitment to equality including in voting. The struggle for women's suffrage, culminating in the 1919 passage of the 19th Amendment, was also a pivotal moment in the Senate.
I believe the most dramatic voting rights struggle in this Chamber was passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Civil rights activist John Lewis and others marching for voting rights were savagely beaten in Selma, Alabama in March of that year. The building frustration of those denied votes in many states coalesced into a final push to get a comprehensive voting bill passed. President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress on March 15, and threw his support behind the Voting Rights Act.
The Senate began floor consideration of the bill on April 22 and, after more than a month of vigorous debate, including many amendments offered by both Republicans and Democratic members, the bill passed. Democratic support was strong 47-17. Republican support was overwhelming 30-2.
The House passed its own version of the VRA on July 9, and a conference report was passed by both houses in early August. President Johnson signed the bill in a ceremony attended by Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Reverend Martin Luther King and other legislative and civil rights leaders.
The Voting Rights Act is viewed as the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed. It ushered in a dramatic increase in voter turnout, more opportunity for racial minorities to vote and 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. Simply put, when all citizens are protected in their rights to vote, government becomes more responsive to the needs of all citizens.
The 1965 Act was strongly bipartisan, both in its passage and in its frequent reauthorization over the years, most recently in 2006. But in recent years the Act has been dramatically weakened by hostile Supreme Court rulings in Shelby County v. Holder and Brnovich v. DNC. Efforts to find Congressional fixes to the Act have floundered because of an unwillingness of Republican members to support the VRA.
The 1965 Act is notable to me at this moment for two reasons. First, it came at a time when many states--primarily in the South, including my own state of Virginia--were undertaking massive efforts to disenfranchise African-American voters. And a culminating event--violence against those trying to press for voting reform--galvanized the nation and this body into action so that we could protect voting and thereby protect American democracy.
Today we are seeing a full out attack on voting and our entire electoral system. Now it is not limited to Southern states. Now it is not directed solely at African-American voters. Now it is not just an attack by bigoted state and local officials in one region. The attack emanated from the previous President's 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, trying to strong-arm his own VP into violating his constitutional oath to deliver a victory to the losing candidate.
And 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 they tried to defend this democracy. 5 Virginia law enforcement officers lost their lives as a result of that day.
The violence was not just a riot or an attack. It was violence designed to disenfranchise the 80 million people who 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 democracy continue. In Republican state legislatures all across this country, 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 may discourage their participation, to interfere with the counting of votes, to interfere with the certification of elections by nonpartisan election officials. These are partisan efforts only passing 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, 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.
And so the Senate stands at a moral crossroads very much like 1965. There is an assault on voting and elections, on the very system of democracy that distinguishes this 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 shall we do?
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 VRA a solution for its time.
The John Lewis Act restores the pre-clearance process contained in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by coming up with a fair process for determining which jurisdictions must seek pre-clearance of voting changes. No longer is pre-clearance limited to states with long histories of discriminatory electoral practices. Instead, every region and community is treated the same, subject to pre-clearance for a fixed period of years following any voting rights violation and able to avoid pre-clearance 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 non-partisan redistricting for Congressional seats, and provides remedies blocking 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 rights to vote and give them confidence that their vote will be counted and that an election result will be accurate.
It is high time we take up these bills on the floor and pass them. And the floor debate should be vigorous with an opportunity for colleagues to offer amendments to the bill. The nation is watching us and needs to understand where every member of this body stands on this critical issue.
I acknowledge one sad reality of the likely debate. Protecting voting rights is unlikely to attract Republican support as it did in 1965. I hope I am wrong in this but I have had enough conversations with Republican colleagues to understand their likely positions.
But even if we get no Republican support, we cannot shrink from the task. The stakes are too high and the moment too meaningful to allow for any evasion.
And if we pass this bill, it will be good for Republicans and Democrats and Independents. The provisions of the bill are widely popular with Americans because the provisions are good for democracy itself.