After speaking about the legacy of President George H.W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson took to the Senate floor to remind his colleagues about the importance of protecting the right to vote for all Americans and called on Congress “to correct what has happened in our system.”
“The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United has opened the floodgates and allowed the wealthiest Americans to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections,” Nelson said. “Allowing such unlimited, undisclosed money into the political system is corrupting our democracy.”
“The American people have a right to know whom they’re voting for – not just the name on the ballot, but who is behind that name on the ballot,” Nelson continued. “I believe we as a Congress have a moral obligation – a moral obligation – to correct what has happened in our system and to ensure that our voters have the information they need to make an informed decision in the election process.”
Following is a full transcript of Nelson’s remarks, and here’s a link to watch video of his speech.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Remarks on the Senate floor
December 5, 2018
And now, Mr. President, I rise to speak about the importance of the sacred right to vote. In the tumultuous days of the 1960’s on a hot afternoon, I watched as a law student on a greeny black and white TV as Dr. King delivered his memorable “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. His soaring, spiritually laced speech challenged us to commit our lives to ensuring that the promises of American democracy were available, not just for the privileged few, but for all of god’s children. Black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, protestants and Catholics, now is the time, Dr. King urged, to make real the promises of democracy.
He stressed that the central promise made to the citizens in a democracy is the right to vote and to have that vote counted. Half a century has passed and our country has changed with the times, but one thing has not changed, the right to vote for all god’s children in America is still under assault. Unbelievably we are not so very far from the problems of 1963. Despite the passage of time and landmark, civil and voting rights legislation, five decades later there is still considerable voter suppression in this country. In fact, several states have recently enacted restrictive laws cutting back voting hours on nights and on weekends and eliminating same-day registration and making it harder for people to vote.
Standing in between a citizen and the voting booth is a direct contradiction to the vision of equality put forth by the founding fathers. In 1776, they declared that all men were created equal but many in our country had to wait another 94 years before the 15th amendment to the constitution granted citizens the right to vote, though not all citizens. Ratified in 1870, the amendment states the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. That is a quote. But it still took another 50 years before women in America were allowed to vote. After her arrest for casting a ballot in the presidential election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony delivered a number of speeches in upstate New York on women’s sufferrage. In those speeches she noted that the right of all citizens to vote in elections is key to a functioning democracy, and specifically one line from her speech stands out. Quote, and it is a down right mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them by providing the democratic Republican government the ballot. End of quote of Susan B. Anthony.
And after the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the ballot, it took another 45 years before our nation belatedly enacted the voting rights act of 1965 intended to guarantee every U.S. Citizen the right to vote. Does this principle really hold true in practice? The continued voter suppression of which I speak may not be as blatant as it once was with Jim crow laws and poll taxes and literacy tests and the like, but it is still very much with us. In recent years it’s obvious that hurdles have once again been placed between the voting booth and the young and minority.
A devastating blow was dealt by the U.S. Supreme court when it gutted the voting rights act in as recent as 2013. Our nation’s highest court struck down a central provision of the law that was used to guarantee fair elections in this country since the mid-1960’s, and that includes the guarantee of elections in my state of Florida since that time. Congress passed the voting rights act of 1965 to protect our right to vote. It required states with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. And for nearly five decades, the states had to prove to the department of justice why a change was necessary and demonstrate how that change would not harm voters of their right to vote. And then in a 5-4 decision, the court declared that part of the law was outdated. It essentially rendered a key part of the law void until a bitterly partisan and gridlock congress can come up with a new formula for determining which states and localities need advanced voter approval to amend their right to vote laws.
The majority of the court justified its ruling by pointing out that we no longer had the blatant voter suppression tactics once used to disenfranchise voters across the country. Well, I vigorously disagreed with that majority opinion because removing much needed voter protections also prevents the federal government from trying to block discriminatory state laws before they go into effect. In essence, states and local jurisdictions are now legally free to do as they please. In fact, just moments after that supreme court decision, the Texas attorney general said his state would begin immediately honoring local legislation that imposed in the words of the federal court strict and unforgiving burdens on many Texans attempting to cast a ballot. And has been noted the right to vote was not always given to all American adults but our laws adjusted as we became a more mature and tolerant democracy. But the reverse is what’s happening in America today.
Since the 2010 election, in addition to cutting back on early voting, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida have approved restrictions that according to some experts are targeted directly at reducing turnout among young, low-income, and minority voters that traditionally vote Democrat. In 2011 the Florida legislature and state officials reduced the number of early voting days. They reduced them from two weeks down to eight days, including very conveniently canceling the Sunday night before the Sunday right before the Tuesday election, a day that historically had seen heavy African American and Hispanic voting. And state officials countered that registered voters would still have the same number of hours that they could still vote early only in eight days instead of two weeks.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. Florida also made voting harder for people who had been recently moved to another county and had an address change, such as college students. It also subjected voter registration groups to penalties and fines. If they made a mistake or they didn’t turn it in within a certain number of hours. These laws were so burdensome that the league of women voters challenged the provisions in federal court and they won. Judges found that Florida’s 2011 reduction of early voting would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot. And as a result, Florida had to restore 96 hours of early but even with these added protections, the next election in 2012, it was a fiasco. Lines outside polling places were prohibitively long with some people waiting up to eight hours to cast a vote.
This year’s 2018 midterm election brought added difficulties in Florida and across the country. In Broward county, Florida, this year, ballot design caused over 30,000 people to miss voting in the U.S. Senate race because they didn’t see it buried in the lower left-hand column under the instructions in English, Spanish, and creole. In North Dakota, the Republican state legislature moved to require residential addresses to registered — to register to vote. This move was widely seen as an attempt to prevent Native Americans, a democratic-leaning constituency, from voting since many of them used P.O. Boxes to get their mail on reservations.
In North Carolina, nearly 20% of early voting locations were closed this year because many of them simply couldn’t meet the burdensome requirements imposed by the state legislature. Now in North Carolina, absentee ballots that were stolen or missing and never delivered are under a federal investigation for fraud. In our neighboring state of Georgia, the Republican candidate for governor was the sitting secretary of state responsible for administering his own election. His office pursued aggressive policies that made it measurably harder for many people to vote, particularly African Americans and other minorities.
So in light of this evidence and following a widespread public outcry, what can we do? And what can we do now? Well, as I had said earlier, it may not be as obvious as poll tactics and all the other blockades to voting. And we’ve seen a lot of that in the past, particularly by all of the marches and so forth during the 1970’s civil rights era. It might not be as obvious, but there are all these subtle attempts. So what should we do?
I submit that the problem albeit complex, the solution, the answer is relatively simple. As Americans who cherish the right to vote, we must turn to those schemers and say there is a promise of democracy that we will not allow you to break. We have an obligation to keep this promise of democracy for our children. There are bright spots we should celebrate. In my state of Florida, voters overwhelmingly this year approved a ballot initiative that would restore the right to vote to nearly a million and a half individuals who had been convicted of felonies, nonviolent felonies, and had served their time. This is a positive step.
And although the congress may be dysfunctional, but we must continue to push lawmakers for a fix to the voting rights act that the supreme court struck down on a divided 5-4 vote, that provision that I spoke about. We ought to be making it easier to vote, not harder.
Keep in mind what President Johnson said a half century ago. The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men. Also remember what Dr. King said. So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind. It is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen observing the laws I have helped to enact. I can only submit to the edict of others. That’s what Dr. King said.
So don’t we owe it to our children the right to possess themselves if this is to be a truly free and fair democracy? I believe that some of the most fundamental rights in our democracy are the right to vote, the right to know whom you’re voting for, and the right to have the confidence that vote that you cast is going to be counted as you intended it. If that were not enough, just as concerning as the ongoing efforts to suppress certain votes is the amount of undisclosed and unlimited money that is sloshing around in our campaigns. The supreme court’s 2010 decision in citizens united has opened the floodgates and allowed the wealthiest Americans to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections.
Allowing such unlimited, undisclosed money into the political system is corrupting our democracy. I have strongly supported several pieces of legislation, such as the disclose act to require groups who spend more than $10,000 on campaign-related matters to identify themselves. Tell us who is giving the money by filing a disclosure with the federal elections commission. The American people have a right to know whom they’re voting for. Not just the name on the ballot but who is behind that name on the ballot. The supreme court itself said that, quote, transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages. End of quote, straight from the court.
I believe we as a congress have a moral obligation, a moral obligation to correct what has happened in our system and to ensure that our voters have the information they need to make an informed decision in the election process.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.