"Extend the Protections of the Act"

By Edward Kennedy

Vol. 4, No. 1, 1981, p. 40

I am very pleased to join with Senators Mathias, Biden, Chafee, and Metzenbaum today in introducing the Voting Rights Amendments of 1981. Our bill will extend the essential protections of the historic Voting Rights Act. It will ensure that the hard won progress of the past is preserved, and that the effort to achieve full participation for all Americans in our democracy will continue in the future.

Twice before, in 1970 and 1975, the crucial provisions of the Act have been extended. Each time the Act has come under attack. But each time, the Congress on a bipartisan basis, has come to its rescue, with the support of Americans from every part of the country. And in 1975, the Act's protection was also extended to Hispanic Americans and other language minorities, who have been the victim of similar discrimination in the right to vote.

Now this landmark legislation is again imperiled. The most successful modern civil rights law is in danger of falling victim to its own success. Unless we act, its crucial safeguards will no longer protect those who have relied upon them the most.

In the coming debate, we will hear once more the arguments against the Act that we have heard in the past. We will be told it is a drastic departure from the principles of our federal system. But the Supreme Court has agreed that Congress was faced with a drastic situation and that the law contains reasonable remedies that are fast, efficient and effective.

We will be told that the special provisions are no longer justified, because so much progress has been made. But the gains in registration and the impressive elections of minority officials have often been the direct result of the protections of the Act. We have come a long way since 1965. But our task is not finished. Continued progress toward equal opportunity in the electoral process will be halted if we abandon the Act's crucial safeguards now.

I am concerned about the need for further progress. But I am even more concerned about the risk of losing what has already been won. Those who fought the battles know how fragile the victories are. Without the preclearance of the new laws, many of the advances of the past decade could be wiped out overnight with new schemes and devices.

In recent years there has been a steady number of objections under Section 5. In fact, while more than 800 proposed changes have been objected to since 1965, well over half of those objections have been entered since the Act was last extended in 1975.

We will also be told that the Act should be applied across the nation, and that it is wrong to use a double standard against one section of the country. That is simply incorrect. The general provisions of the Act do operate in every state. Even the special coverage under the trigger formula of Section 4 is not regional. It now applies to all or parts of some 25 different states throughout the country. The preclearance provisions of Section 5 apply literally to the four corners of the nation: from counties in Hawaii and Alaska to parts of New York and several New England states; from Arizona to the Deep South. Of course the major impact has been in the South. But submissions under Section 5 have been required from many other parts of the country.

We must keep faith with the millions of Americans who look to this Act for the protection of their basic political rights. We must not risk a return to the conditions we struggled so long to change. We must not turn back the clock.

It was sixteen years ago that Lyndon Johnson came before us and challenged us to join with him in the historic pledge that "we shall overcome." This is not the time to retreat or to surrender.

Senator Edward Kennedy spoke on the Senate floor after the introduction of the bill to renew the Voting Rights Act on April 6, 1981.