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Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening remarks during a Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing on “Oversight of the Voting Rights Act: The Evolving Landscape of Voting Discrimination”:
“The Voting Rights Act is rightly regarded by many as our nation’s most important civil rights law.
“Many Americans, including our late beloved colleague John Lewis, shed their blood in support of its passage. The institutions of government, including this one in which we have the honor of serving, better reflect our nation’s diversity because of its vigorous enforcement.
“During today’s hearing, we will hear about how this progress remains under threat in the continued aftermath of the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, and why we need to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full vitality.
“Without question, the VRA has been an unqualified success. It helped to reduce discriminatory barriers to voting and expanded electoral opportunities for people of color to federal, state, and local offices, thereby opening the political process to every American. Despite decades of evidence of the VRA’s success, however, the Supreme Court in 2013 Shelby County substituted its own judgment for that of Congress in rejecting Congress’s conclusion that the record supported the VRA’s reauthorization.
“This decision effectively gutted the Act’s most important enforcement mechanism—its Section 5 preclearance provision. Specifically, it struck down the formula for determining which states and localities are subject to preclearance, which had the effect of striking down the preclearance provision itself, as there is no longer a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to its requirements.
“Before the VRA, states and localities passed a host of voter suppression laws, secure in the knowledge that it could take many years before the Justice Department could successfully challenge them in court, if at all.
“As soon as one law was overturned, another would be enacted, essentially setting up a discriminatory game of whack-a-mole. Section 5 of the VRA broke this legal logjam by requiring states and localities with a history of discrimination against racial and ethnic minority voters to submit changes to their voting laws to the Justice Department, or to a court, for approval prior to taking effect.
“In the absence of preclearance, predictably, the game of whack-a-mole has returned. Within 24 hours of the Shelby County decision, both Texas’ Attorney General and North Carolina’s General Assembly announced that they would reinstitute draconian voter ID laws.
“Both of these states’ laws were later held in federal courts to be intentionally racially discriminatory, but, during the years between their enactment and the court’s final decision, many elections were conducted while the laws remained in place.
“Since the Shelby County decision, we have seen a dramatic rise in the number of voter suppression measures. Burdensome proof of citizenship laws, significant scale-backs to early voting periods, restrictions on absentee ballots, and laws that make it harder to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated individuals are just a small sample of recent voting changes that have a disproportionate impact on minority voters.
“Indeed, there is now a renewed effort underway in the states to enact just these types of voter suppression measures, this time justified under the pretense of addressing the baseless allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election that have been promoted by former President Trump and his allies.
“To be clear, there is simply no evidence that significant voter fraud or voting irregularities in any way affected the outcome of the 2020 election. Yet after having promoted these false allegations to the public, many legislators are now citing a decline in trust in elections to justify draconian voter restrictions.
“According to a recent Brennan Center for Justice report, just this year, as of March 24, state legislators in 47 states have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions. There are at least 55 restrictive voting laws currently moving through the legislative process in 24 states. Four states have already enacted new restrictive voting laws. One particularly egregious example is SB 202, a Georgia law that imposes numerous new burdens on voting, including onerous identification requirements for absentee voting, restrictions on early voting, and, most notoriously, criminal penalties for offering food or water to voters waiting in line to vote.
“Notably, Georgia was previously subject to the VRA’s preclearance regime. And while such actions may violate other provisions of the VRA, time and experience have proven that it takes far longer, and is far more expensive, to pursue after-the-fact legal remedies. And once a vote has been denied, it cannot be recast—the damage to our democracy is permanent.
“Yet even Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits voting discrimination nationwide, now may be under threat at the Supreme Court.
“In a consolidated case currently before the Court, the Justices are being asked to uphold two Arizona election laws that were challenged under Section 2 as discriminatory to Native American, Latino, and African-American voters.
“It is possible that the Court, in deciding these cases, could hamstring future plaintiffs’ ability to even bring or prove a Section 2 claim by imposing a new legal standard that may place additional hurdles that many plaintiffs are unable to meet. The Court could even go so far as to strike Section 2 down as unconstitutional.
“Congress cannot continue to let these challenges to the VRA go unanswered. This landmark law is a bulwark of American democracy. It is, at its heart, a necessary remedy to cure the scourge of voting discrimination by preventing our nation from backsliding into a time when denying racial and ethnic minorities the right to vote was a matter of government policy. Though progress has been made, too many Americans are still denied the right to vote because of their race, ethnicity, or language minority status and the threat of a backslide is ever present.
“Reauthorization of the VRA historically has been a strongly bipartisan effort. That is why it is my hope that Members on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers of Congress, will come together and pass legislation to restore the law to its full strength.
“I thank the Chairman for holding this important hearing, which will provide another opportunity to renew our understanding of the importance of the VRA, as well as the challenges it continues to face.
“I look forward to hearing from the excellent witnesses participating in today’s panel, and I yield back the balance of my time.”