In July 1965 when President Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law, he proclaimed that, “the right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless.”
A month earlier, on a trip to Ohio to rally support for this legislation, Martin Luther King equated the right to vote with the concept of freedom – and predicted, correctly, that a law ensuring equal access to the ballot box was an “idea whose time has come”.
For our Department of Justice, and for our government and law enforcement partners across the country, this is among our highest priorities. This is evident in the historic progress that has been made by this administration – especially when it comes to expanding access to legal services; to combating hate crimes, community violence, and human trafficking; to strengthening law enforcement efforts in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our immigrant communities and our voting booths.
Despite our country’s long tradition of extending voting rights – to non-property owners and women, to people of colour and Native Americans, and to younger Americans – today, a growing number of our fellow citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – nearly five decades ago – so many fought to address.
In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from citizens, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble ideals; and that some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance.
Nowhere is this clearer than in current efforts to expand access to, and prevent discrimination in, our election systems. We are dedicated to aggressively enforcing the Voting Rights Act - and to fulfilling our obligations under Section 2, Section 5, and Section 4 of this vital law.
Under Section 2, which prohibits racially discriminatory practices that amount to either vote denial or vote dilution, we have opened a record number of new investigations – more than 100 in the last fiscal year. You have seen the fruits of the Department’s Section 2 enforcement here in Ohio, in the City of Euclid, where our lawsuit resulted in new election methods for the city council and school board. We’ve also had success – without litigation – in encouraging voluntary improvements and compliance.
Each of these lawsuits claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.
I wish this were the case. But the reality is that – in jurisdictions across the country – both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common – and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history.
Our efforts honour the generations of Americans who have taken extraordinary risks, and willingly confronted hatred, bias, and ignorance, to ensure that their children, and all citizens, would have the chance to participate in the work of their government.
Of course, there will always be room for improvement. And we must always create space for thoughtful discussion and debate. That’s what the democratic process is all about – and what the struggle for freedom has long been about ensuring: creating opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions, and – through the casting of their ballots – to signal their priorities and shape their own future.
Our nation has worked for, struggled for, and fought for such a system. And, today, with each of us – this fight goes on. The progress we hold dear is in our hands. And the democracy we hold sacred is our responsibility to carry forward.
Protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative. And this must be true for every citizen, in every state. No matter where you live, you have the ability – and the responsibility – to support policies aimed at modernising our voting systems; at ensuring that all eligible citizens have access to complete, accurate, and understandable information about where, when, and how they can cast a ballot; and at preventing and punishing fraudulent voting practices.
Along with the opportunities of citizenship, let us accept its obligations. Let us honour the course of our history. Let us answer the call of destiny. And let us keep faith in the promise of this nation – and in the power of what its people can achieve together.
Eric Holder is Attorney General of the United States. This is an excerpt of a speech he gave at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, republished courtesy of the US Department of Justice.