Butterfield Takes to House Floor to Speak on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON, DC – Congressman G. K. Butterfield (NC-01), a former civil rights attorney and judge, took to the House Floor to discuss the importance of preserving Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is now being considered in Shelby County v Holder by the Supreme Court.  The full video and transcript follows.

Mr. BUTTERFIELD. I thank the gentleman for yielding, and particularly thank the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus for her leadership in convening this special hour tonight.

   As many of our colleagues know, before being elected to Congress 8 years ago, I was a trial judge and an appellate judge in my home State of North Carolina. But what many of you may not know is that, for some 6 years before becoming a judge, I spent considerable time litigating cases under the Voting Rights Act and presenting comments to the Department of Justice in section 5 cases.

   Mr. Speaker, so many people do not understand section 5. This preclearance provision does not apply in every jurisdiction in America. It only applies to selected counties where there was evidence of discriminatory voting practices when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. These jurisdictions are required to submit to the Department of Justice any changes in election law or procedure for determination of whether the change could have a negative impact on the voting strength of minority groups. If the jurisdiction fails in their proof, the change is not allowed. And I will say for the Record today that, in the early days of section 5, many jurisdictions ignored the requirement.

   It has been proven, Mr. Speaker, time and time again in courtrooms across America that racially polarized voting has existed at the ballot box since the 15th Amendment was ratified–and it exists today. My congressional district in North Carolina, though it is improving, continues to have voting based on the race of the candidate. Many white voters choose not to vote for a candidate who is clearly the preferred candidate of the African American community. When this happens, the black community is handicapped. We call it vote dilution. And so section 5’s preclearance provision simply is a backstop against jurisdictions devising election schemes that will make it more difficult for the African American community to elect a candidate of its choice, taking into consideration the existence of racially polarized voting.

   Mr. Speaker, I can cite dozens of instances in North Carolina where discriminatory changes were proposed to election systems and the Department of Justice stepped forward and denied the change. Had it not been for section 5, black electoral success in my congressional district would be considerably less. Many of the cities and counties in my district now have single-member election districts that were ordered by the courts. The courts have required that some of these districts had to be majority African American, which now enable the African American community to elect candidates of their choice. Elimination of section 5 could enable mischievous jurisdictions to eliminate this in favor of at-large elections, where concentrations of black voters would be submerged into at-large systems.

   Mr. Speaker, the time has not come when we should eliminate the protection of section 5. The evidence continues to suggest racially polarized voting that discriminates against the African American community. If this protection is struck down, some governing boards at the State and the local level will seize the opportunity to promulgate election rules that disadvantage minority voters, and the only remedy then will be to file an expensive Federal lawsuit and prove intentional discrimination in the district court. And so, Mr. Speaker, I urge the Supreme Court to carefully look at the legislative history that we have provided and decide to maintain the protection of section 5.

   Again, I thank the gentleman from Nevada for his friendship and his leadership and for working to make this hour happen tonight.