Good morning, I’m Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice.
I want to thank Commissioner Hicks for his work and for the invitation to join you today, and thank Commissioners Palmer, McCormick and Hovland for their service. I look forward to working with the Election Assistance Commission to help improve election administration and find ways to advance the goals underlying the Help America Vote Act.
As the head of the Civil Rights Division, I work with DOJ attorneys to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote can register to vote and can vote; that all those votes are counted; and that the results of those votes are honored.
As we gather today to celebrate Black History Month, I’m humbled to say that I am the first Black woman ever to serve as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. And as I’m sure my colleagues EAC Commissioner Hicks and FEC Commissioner Broussard would agree, none of us got to where we are alone.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. The work of so many before us has brought us here today – Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Constance Baker Motley, Lani Guinier, the list goes on.
Even the Civil Rights Division that I now oversee did not always exist. Rather, it was born of the activism and organizing of the early Civil Rights Movement. The division was created as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 – a bill so sweeping that Adam Clayton Powell Jr. called it, “the second emancipation.”
It is now our turn to make good on the promise of America. To me, that means protecting our democracy in this time of profound challenge. The current assault on voting rights is alarming. In 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. More than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions. These numbers are extraordinary: state legislatures enacted far more restrictive voting laws in 2021 than in any year since the 1950s and 60s.
As Attorney General Merrick Garland observed in June of last year: “There are many things that are open to debate in America. But the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow.”
In upholding our commitment to securing access to the ballot for all Americans, we have filed lawsuits and statements of interest across the country challenging laws, both new and old, that restrict the right to vote or make it harder for people of color to elect candidates of their choice
The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder eliminated our ability to use one of the most powerful and effective tools that came out of the voting rights movement. That tool — Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — offered an ingenious solution to the problem of states and localities coming up with new ways to bar Black, Latino or Native American voters from participating equally. Governments had to prove, before they made any changes to their election laws, that those laws were nondiscriminatory. In the Supreme Court’s description, Section 5 shifted the burden of time and inertia from the victims of discrimination to its perpetrators. We need Congress to act now to restore the Voting Rights Act. But I hope that we will use this Black History Month to redouble our efforts to make real the promises underlying the 14th and 15th Amendments, and press to enact, robust and powerful tools for dealing with ongoing forms of voting discrimination today.
Ensuring that all eligible Americans have access to the ballot box is critical to the health of our democracy. Ensuring that all citizens have voice in in our democracy, particularly those who have historically faced disenfranchisement, is a goal that we should all strive for.
In response to that era’s attempt to restrict the vote, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized at the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his famous “Give us the ballot” speech. In that speech he acknowledged that voting alone isn’t enough – that we must use that power and turn it into real change. But he also knew that without the power to vote, democracy dies.
“The denial of this sacred right,” he said, “is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”
But Dr. King did not merely declare voting to be important. He implored the Black community directly to peacefully march, advocate and press for voting rights as the way to save America herself.
“Keep moving amid every mountain of opposition. If you will do that when the history books are written in the future, the historians will have to look back and say, “There lived a great people.” a people who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization; a people, which stood up with dignity and honor and saved civilization in her darkest hour.”
These words are just as on point and inspiring today as they were then. It serves as a powerful reminder of our collective obligation to work every day to make sure everyone in this country has equal access to this fundamental right.
It is a tremendous honor to work with the other speakers here today, and with you to keep moving, amid every mountain of opposition, to finally reach justice together.