Majority Leader Schumer Floor Remarks On Opening Debate On Voting Rights Legislation To Protect Our Democracy

January 19, 2022

Washington, D.C.   Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) today spoke on the Senate floor regarding the Senate debate today on voting rights legislation to protect our democracy. Below are Senator Schumer’s remarks, which can also be viewed here:

In the fall of 1868, recently-freed African American men participated in federal elections for the first time in American history.

According to Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, the impacts of expanding the vote were immediate and dramatic:

“In a startling reversal for an area once dominated by slavery, the elections spawned black sheriffs, school board members, state legislators, and congressmen. That yesterday’s slave laborer was today’s state legislator horrified many white southerners who refused to accept this extraordinary inversion of their bygone world.”

Naturally, the opponents of voting rights had an answer.

Chernow continues: “…to circumvent the fifteenth amendment, white politicians in Georgia [and other states] devised new methods of stripping blacks of voting rights, including poll taxes, onerous registration requirements”—let me repeat that quote: onerous registration requirements—“and similar restrictions copied in other states.”

Many attempts were made by this very body to stop these sinister laws, but the result was ultimately a failure.

By 1877: “the black community in the South steadily lost ground until a rigid apartheid separated the races completely, a terrible state of affairs that would not be fixed until the rise of the Civil Rights Movement after World War II.”

Today the United States Senate meets in a different century, facing new and different dangers, but wrestling with the same fundamental question: how will the members of this body protect and expand the most basic right of American citizens, the wellspring of our democracy, the thing that distinguished America from all of the countries in Europe when it was established in first 1776 and then 1789?

The right to vote; the most important wellspring of our democracy; the most important feature of our democracy. How will the members of this body expand and protect the most basic right, the right to vote, from forces right now in the 21st century conspiring to take it away?

That is why, today, the U.S. Senate will debate legislation to protect our democracy, and the eyes of history – the eyes of history – are upon us.

The question that’s before us today is as old as the Republic itself. The story of democracy has been a long march towards universal suffrage, a holy struggle to take the vision of our framers and to make it real in the present.

The march unfortunately has often not been linear. At the time of our Constitution’s ratification, you had to be, in many states, a white, male, Protestant, landowner to vote. How many in this chamber would have been able to participate in those early elections?

Throughout our nation’s history, moments of significant progress have often been followed by reactionary backlash. Unfortunately it seems—led by one party, compelled by the most dishonest president in our history—we are in another of those dark periods.

That is why, for the first time—the first time—in this Congress, the Senate is debating, and will vote on, legislation to confront these threats: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

For the information of all, debate on these bills will continue throughout the day, and as soon as 6:30, if not a little later, we will hold a cloture vote to conclude debate and proceed to final passage on these measures.

I want to thank my colleagues who spoke yesterday in favor of these bills. There were so many eloquent and strong speeches. I have rarely seen such passion about the need to vote and the need to change the rules to allow these vital bills—so fixed upon the wellspring of our democracy, voting—to pass.

If the Republicans block cloture on the legislation before us, I will put forward a proposal to change the Senate rules to allow for a talking filibuster on this legislation, as recommended by a number of our colleagues who have been working on this reform for a very long time.

Make no mistake: win, lose or draw, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, particularly on such an important issue as this.

And win, lose or draw, we are going to vote. We are going to vote – especially when the issue relates to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights does.

For months, Senate Republicans have resisted virtually every attempt at holding a bipartisan debate on voting rights legislation.

Senate Democrats have certainly tried to bring them all to the table. Senate Democrats have certainly been willing to compromise to get something done. My colleagues Senators Manchin and Kaine and Tester and King and Durbin and Klobuchar and Leahy – and more –have all met with Republicans to initiate a dialogue, dating back to last August if not earlier.

At virtually every turn, we have been met with resistance.

Amazingly enough, my colleagues—none of them are here to hear it—our Republican colleagues don’t even acknowledge we have a crisis—Leader McConnell even claimed “States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever.”

Let me read that quote again: this is from Leader McConnell’s words: “States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever.”

I would ask the Republican Leader:

If there is no effort to suppress the vote, why have 19 states passed 33 new laws making it harder for Americans to participate in our elections, in the aftermath of one of the safest elections in American recent history? Where there was virtually no evidence of any material fraud, none?

If there is no effort to suppress the vote, why are states from Texas to Montana restricting the number and hours of polling places?

Why have states like Florida and Texas made it harder to register—to register!to vote? Is that not suppressing the vote?

Why are states like Iowa cutting down on the number of days you can vote early? Is that not suppressing the vote?

And if there is no effort to suppress the vote, why have states like Georgia made it a crime for volunteers to give food and water to voters standing in line at the polls?

Leader McConnell once again: “States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever.” Just as Donald Trump has his Big Lie, Leader McConnell now has his. “States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever.”

The same type of Big Lie that Donald Trump put forward, has now motivated Leader McConnell and many other Republicans to embrace that Big Lie, and spout others that come from the same poisonous tree.

And what’s even more galling, knowing our history: the laws that I spoke of a minute ago don’t target everyone. This is not an effort aimed at everyone: they are aimed particularly at people of color, at poor people, at young people, at disabled people, at elderly people, at people who live in cities. Given the long history, particularly against African Americans, Black Americans, of suppressing the vote in every kind of way possible, this is particularly disgraceful, particularly abhorrent, particularly obnoxious.

We all know the game here today, exemplified by every seat being empty when we are having our first debate by voting rights, not because Republicans agreed to go along, but because we were able to use a message from the House to go forward without their okay. So we all know the game here.

To date, I don’t know if any of my colleagues have, but I have not heard a single serious defense of these laws from Senate Republicans. They don’t come here to the floor to defend what’s going on in the states—what we have heard is sophistry, distractions, and outright gas-lighting. For months Senate Republicans have come up with excuses and subterfuges to avoid doing the right thing, just like others have come up with the similar lame excuses and subterfuges in the past. But this is the 21st century. We're supposed to have gone beyond that, but unfortunately we have not.

Facts are stubborn, and today’s debate will help us arrive at the facts of voter suppression before we vote to take action.

As we debate this issue so critical to the wellspring of our democracy, we will all confront a critical question: shall the members of this chamber do what is necessary to pass these bills and move them to the President's desk?

It is my hope that courage awakens within the hearts of our Republican colleagues before the day is out. But if the Senate cannot protect the right to vote—protect the cornerstone of our democracy—under the existing rules, then the Senate rules must be reformed.

And let me say this: we have diverse views about whether the filibuster today in 21st century America is a good thing or a bad thing. And there are some in our caucus , a few, who believe it helps bring us together. I don't see that evidence, and I think the majority of my colleagues would agree [we have not seen that evidence].

But even for those who feel that the filibuster is a good thing and helps bring us together, I would ask this question: isn't the protection of voting rights, the most fundamental wellspring of this democracy, more important? Isn't protecting voting rights and preventing their diminution more important than a rule in the Senate, which has not always been in existence and was not envisioned by the Founders? That is the question we should ask ourselves.

Our proposal for a talking filibuster on these pieces of legislation would be the first step towards passing voting rights, restoring this body, and breaking the gridlock that we now face on this vital issue.

In this body, the proponents of our democratic rights again and again have brought legislation to the floor only to be met by a filibuster. Opponents of fair and open elections filibustered anti-poll tax legislation in 1942, 1944, and 1946; they filibustered the Civil Rights bill of 1960; and they filibustered legislation on literacy tests in 1962. All this before real, substantive progress was made. Our struggle today is not new, but we must nevertheless meet it with renewed conviction.

Senate Democrats are under no illusion that we face an uphill fight, especially when virtually every Republican has remained staunchly against every attempt to pass voting rights legislation.

And again, I would remind the American people and every one of my colleagues that this is a different Republican party, controlled by Donald Trump.

Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush all supported renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Every one of them. And it received large bipartisan majorities in the Senate. It's a different Republican party. Not just on so many issues which we debate, but on this issue, the wellspring of our democracy.

So, we know it's an uphill fight, but whenever this chamber confronts a question this important—one so vital to our country—you don’t slide it off the table and say “never mind.”  You don't say we're not going to deal with this issue head-on. Senators’ job is to vote, and to vote on the most important issues facing us, and vote we will. And we are going to keep pushing. We are going to keep working. We are going to keep fighting long after today because the issue is so important to all of us.

I believe firmly in my bones that if we follow Dr. King’s advice to just “keep moving,” history shows that doing the right thing will eventually prevail. Justice will flow like mighty waters, as the Prophet Amos has said.

But the work of justice does not stir into action on its own.

It is up to us — members of this body and Americans all across the country — to do our own part to make justice come alive today and assure our country does not backslide here in the 21st century.

So I urge my colleagues: for the sake of our beautiful, wonderful democracy. For the sake of what the Founding Fathers called this noble experiment, take a stand and do everything, everything, everything you can to protect voting rights today in this chamber. 

###