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Grassley Statement at Voting Rights Act Hearing

Senator Charles Grassley
Senator Charles Grassley
Prepared Statement of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
Hearing on the Voting Rights Act
Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today on the important subject of the Voting Rights Act following the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The Voting Rights Act guarantees the fundamental right to vote for all qualified voters, regardless of their race or language. The right to vote guarantees the protection of other rights.

The law was necessary to address a shameful history. I have voted to reauthorize the Act.

I appreciate the testimony of our congressional colleagues. Representative Lewis, your participation in Bloody Sunday helped lead to enacting the law and created your enduring place in history. Thank you for being here today.

We should be pleased that our country has made so many advances in race relations since the Voting Rights Act was passed. The Act contributed to the progress. No doubt, though, more progress must be made. And, a hearing such as this will help the dialogue continue.

We last voted to reauthorize the Act in 2006. Much has changed since then. The voter turnout rate was higher last year among registered African-American voters than for whites.
More African-American and Hispanic candidates than ever are winning elections. The Supreme Court has found these facts to be of constitutional significance.

We are here today largely because Congress failed to heed the Supreme Court’s 2009 warning that the differing treatment of states in the preclearance coverage formula of the Act raised serious constitutional questions. Eight justices said so. The ninth would have struck down the law then.

Congress could have drafted a new coverage formula to address those concerns. We could have created a formula based on 21st century realities, not the dramatically different conditions that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. That did not happen. The court then ruled as it did.

Many people believe that Section 2 is the “heart” of the Voting Rights Act. Unlike Section 5, it prohibits voter discrimination nationwide. And like Section 5, section 2 can be used to challenge procedures before they take effect, through injunctions.

Over the years, the preclearance process has led to many fewer objections to proposed election law changes. Since the last reauthorization, only 31 objections have been made. There have been no objections raised to any change in 7 of the 16 states that are covered in whole or in part or in 3 of the states that are fully covered. 99.86 percent of submissions have been approved. Additionally, the racial gap in voter registration and turnout is now lower in the states that were originally covered in section 5 than is the case nationwide.

The Court has given Congress the opportunity to draft a new, constitutional coverage formula.

I disagree with a member of this Committee across the aisle who said, “As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance.” Cynicism and defeatism have never before characterized reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Rather than blaming Republicans for blocking a bill that does not exist, the majority should bring forth a proposal for updating the coverage formula in a constitutional way. We could cover the whole country. We could identify jurisdictions engaging in discrimination in the 21st century and where section 2 is inadequate.

There may be other options. I look forward to seeing what the majority ultimately proposes. I certainly understand why there is no proposal yet. But for any new bill to pass, we must respect the Court’s pronouncements.

The Court based its ruling in part on the Tenth Amendment. Significantly, the Court wrote, “[T]he Constitution provides that all powers not specifically granted to the Federal Government are reserved to the States or citizens.”

That is a formulation of the Tenth Amendment I have never before seen. It means that Congress can only enact laws that fall within the powers the Constitution specifically gives it, such as the enumerated powers in Article I and the Fifteenth Amendment, which is the constitutional basis for the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court’s ruling requires Congress to show greater respect for the limitations of its powers as against state authority. It is language that must be kept in mind if Congress considers legislation to amend the Voting Rights Act.

And, the Court last month also ruled that under the Constitution’s Elections Clause, Congress may regulate “how federal elections are held, but not who may vote in them.” Those decisions are left to the states.

Further, any legislative fix should not threaten common sense measures to ensure the integrity of voting, such as constitutional voter identification laws. Overwhelming majorities support these requirements. They know that the right to vote is denied as completely when a valid vote is canceled by the vote of someone ineligible to vote as when an eligible voter is blocked. And the Supreme Court has just ruled that “it would raise serious constitutional doubts if a federal statute precluded a State from obtaining the information necessary to enforce its voter qualifications.”

This hearing is important. I commend you, Mr. Chairman, for holding it so soon after the Shelby County decision. And I welcome all our witnesses.

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