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WASHINGTON DC – Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (MD) released the following statement today at a news briefing with Democratic leaders, led by Rep. John Lewis (GA), on the anniversary and reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.
“The Voting Rights Act is an emblem of this nation’s long journey to fulfill the democratic promise enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
“Without VRA, our nation would be a very different place than it is today:
“Impediments to voting that today are scarcely imaginable because of VRA – literacy tests, poll taxes, harassment of registration drives, physical intimidation of minority voters – would still be common features of our nation’s electoral landscape. And not just in the South, but throughout the United States.
“Rep. John Lewis, my colleague and friend, knows of what I speak. Indeed, no one here today symbolizes the struggle to secure voting rights for African Americans and the success of the Voting Rights Act more than John Lewis.
“In exercising their First Amendment rights to secure their Fifteenth Amendment rights on March 7, 1965, John Lewis and his fellow marchers were brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers while trying to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge en route to Montgomery from Selma, an act of horror that moved the President Johnson and Congress to make voting rights legislation a national priority.
“Simply put, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, amended and extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982, is among the most successful pieces of democratic legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress.
“By invalidating any election law that denies or abridges voting rights on account of race or color, requiring certain jurisdictions to provide bilingual election materials, and strengthening the Federal government’s ability to oversee state and local election practices, the Voting Rights Act revolutionized our democratic system.
“Consider the statistics: At the time the Act was adopted, only one-third of all African Americans of voting age were on the registration rolls in the specially covered states, while two-thirds of eligible whites were registered. In some states, fewer than five percent of blacks were registered.
“Today black voter registration rates are approaching parity with that of whites in many areas, and Hispanic voters in jurisdictions added to the list of those specially covered by the Act in 1975 are not far behind.
“The Act has also increased the opportunity of black and Latino voters to elect representatives of their choice by providing legal tools to challenge discriminatory election methods such as at-large elections, racially gerrymandered districting plans, or runoff requirements that may dilute minority voting strength.
“Virtually excluded from all public offices in the South in 1965, black and Hispanic voters are now substantially represented in the state legislatures and local governing bodies throughout the region. In 1970, the first year this kind of information was collected, the number of black elected officials stood at 1,479. By 2001, the number had reached a high of 9,101.
“Our democratic system is not perfect. Efforts to suppress minority voting, either through legal legerdemain or outright intimidation, persist. But for the Voting Rights Act, and a judicial system that has been willing to enforce it vigorously, a return to an election system bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to the one that existed before 1965 is entirely conceivable.”