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National Practices & Real Experiences: Existing Mechanisms providing for Political Participation of Minorities
November 12, 2009

Delivered by Julie Fernandes Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil rights

Madame Chairperson. Thank you for the opportunity to present today on behalf of the United States government on obstacles to effective political participation faced by members of minority groups.

As you know well, the history of the United States includes the history of our struggle to achieve equality in effective political participation. And, as with much of our civil rights history, this struggle is rooted in our legacy of slavery.

For decades after the end of the civil war and the abolishment of slavery, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native American faced widespread disenfranchisement across the country. From Jim Crow in the South to English-only elections in the Southwest, for many years the United States was operating far short of its ideals of equality and equal opportunity for all.

The enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 was a watershed moment in the fight for fairness in our election system. Since its passage, the United States has made substantial progress in breaking down racial barriers to voting, resulting in greater minority participation in elections and significant increases in the election of racial minorities to public office. The Act’s temporary provisions have been repeatedly upheld by broad bipartisan majorities in Congress — most recently in 2006 — and repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court.

Section 2 of the Act prohibits racial discrimination in voting, including practices that result in racial vote dilution, thus allowing the Department of Justice or a private citizen to challenge a voting practice as discriminatory in federal court. Under Section 5, jurisdictions with the most troubling history of racial discrimination in voting cannot implement any change affecting voting until the Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia determines that the change does not have a discriminatory purpose and would not have a discriminatory effect. In addition, the Attorney General can designate a county covered by these special provisions for the appointment of federal observers to help prevent voter intimidation at the polls. The minority language provisions of the Act, section 203, 4(e), and 4(f)(4), ensure meaningful access to the franchise for language minority citizens.

As noted above, in the 40 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we have made tremendous progress in the march toward ending voting discrimination and creating a more equal democracy. However, many challenges remain as we continue to face other practices that disproportionately exclude minorities from political participation. These mechanisms include:

• Certain voter identification laws that disproportionately affect members of minority groups;

• Drawing voting district lines in ways that result in reduced electoral opportunity for racial and/or language minorities;

• Non-compliance by some states with requirements under the National Voter Registration Act to offer voter registration opportunities at public assistance offices;

• Continued non-compliance by many jurisdictions with the language minority provisions of the VRA.

In the United States, we have struggled for generations against the challenge of ensuring effective political participation for all of our citizens – regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, or language. Today, we have in place many important tools to combat current voting rights barriers. What we need – and what we bring to this debate – is a strong commitment to doing more to eliminate barriers to voting for racial, ethnic, and language minorities to ensure not just equal access to the polls, but an equal voice in our democracy.

Thank you.