Eric H. Holder, Jr. Remarks at the DNC’s IWillVote Gala in Atlanta, GA
Thank you, Tom, for inviting me here tonight to join this distinguished group of Democrats.
Tom, when we are successful this fall, it will be in no small part because of your work to engage more Americans – and an integral part of our base – through the IWillVote campaign.
It is both a pleasure and an honor to be with all of you here in Georgia, which is still in so many ways an epicenter of our nation’s struggle for civil rights.
Parts of Georgia’s history remind us that there have been too many moments in the past when our democratic institutions have been tested and failed the American people.
We are in one of those moments again today: our institutions – our democratic systems — are being tested. It might sound hyperbolic, but I truly believe our democracy is under attack. We must not allow the failures of the past to be repeated.
In 1963, as the nation struggled to end state-sanctioned discrimination, Dr. King said, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment” and that the work of the Movement was “not an end, but a beginning.”
We commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s passing earlier this year. We cannot and should not deny the progress we have made since Dr. King’s time. We owe a debt to those foot soldiers for justice. But we cannot overlook the urgency of this moment. As we gather here tonight, the opponents of equality are devising new ways to halt and even roll back the victories for which Dr. King and so many others gave their lives.
The poll tax, literacy tests and Jim Crow may be relics of bygone eras, but discrimination and voter disenfranchisement remain real and growing problems in the United States of America.
If we are going to heal our divisions as a nation – if we are going to follow through on the Constitution’s promise of a more perfect union – then we must be frank about the challenges we still face.
For the past eight years, the Republican Party has undertaken a systematic effort to cripple our democracy and disenfranchise those who disagree with its views.
In too many places – including right here in Georgia – our political system is far from fair. Republicans have rigged it through racial and partisan gerrymandering. They’ve anchored this effort through false claims of widespread voter fraud. And they’ve undermined our system through shameless acts of voter and political suppression.
In 2010, Republicans rode a wave election into power at the state and local level. Following the reapportionment of seats after the census, they locked themselves into power through unprecedented racial and partisan gerrymandering.
The results of their efforts were immediate and enduring. For example, in 2012, Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in races for the House of Representatives – but Republicans won a 33-seat majority.
Now Democrats are going to do well this year. There will be a blue wave. But I’m concerned that the wave will hit a Republican seawall of gerrymandering and may not reach the shore of justice.
And if we do not fix the structural inequalities created by Republicans, we could spend another decade on a rigged playing field.
Now is the time to restore fairness to our democracy. Half of the state elected officials who will draw new maps in 2021 will be elected in 2018, making this a critical election year for redistricting.
That’s why, as the Chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, I’m fighting for fair electoral maps. We are attacking this problem from every angle, including litigation, reform efforts, building the political and technical infrastructure we need for fair maps and electing Democrats at the state and local levels.
Let me be very clear: we are supporting – and I am going to campaign for – people running at the state and local level who will stand up for a fair redistricting process and stand up for our democracy.
Also know this: the National Redistricting Foundation, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has filed lawsuits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. These lawsuits seek to create one additional majority-minority district in each state. The illegal placement of African Americans voters violates the principle of one person, one vote, and it must not stand any longer.
Gerrymandering weakens our democracy by making some voters’ ballots more powerful than others. But it also does damage well beyond election day.
When elections are rigged through partisan or racial gerrymandering, it intensifies polarization, contributes to gridlock, and deepens the cynicism Americans feel about our government.
And by eliminating truly competitive elections, gerrymandering encourages politicians to ignore the will of the people. It allows them to vote for unpopular laws that put the interests of a few before the well-being of all with no political consequence.
It’s not a coincidence that in the states with the most extensive gerrymandering, Republicans have set out to restrict access to the ballot box through discriminatory voter ID laws.
In North Carolina, a federal judge found that a voter ID law targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”
In Texas, a voter ID law allows people to vote using a concealed carry permit, but not a University of Texas student ID.
In Wisconsin– a state Hillary Clinton lost by 23,000 votes – a voter ID law prevented up to 45,000 people from voting in 2016.
We must begin to win more elections and acquire power at the state and local level so we can undo the damage done by these malicious laws. We must be more than a party that focuses only on races at the federal level.
And once in office, Democrats must pass new laws that make it easier to use the most powerful tool we have as citizens – the vote.
The redistricting that will occur in 2021 will rely on the Census conducted in 2020. A key part of our work is protecting the integrity of that Census, which is under assault by the current occupant of the White House.
The administration has a constitutional duty to conduct a fair and accurate census, to take stock of all “persons” living in the United States.
Yet this Administration and their Republican allies in Congress have underfunded the census effort. They’ve already failed to conduct multiple field tests and now, for the first time since 1950, they want to add a citizenship question to the long-form census.
Jeff Sessions has said he needs to ask this citizenship question so he can enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Give me a break.
If you look up hypocrisy in the dictionary, you will find a picture of Sessions next to a copy of the Voting Rights Act.
We know what the Republicans are up to and which people they don’t want counted.
If there is an inaccurate Census, voters will be denied their constitutionally guaranteed rights to equitable political representation based on actual population. They will also be deprived of their fair share of 675 billion dollars in federal funding that is distributed based on census information. That money goes toward education, infrastructure, health care, and countless other pressing needs for all our residents.
These are enormous stakes, which is why the National Redistricting Foundation is also suing the Trump Administration to block its addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.
The assault on the census exemplifies this administration’s willingness to sacrifice the common good in favor of its own narrow agenda.
But we should be clear that this agenda wasn’t drawn up by Donald Trump. He’s just reading from the playbook that Republicans have been using for years. Donald Trump is not an aberration. He is the logical product of years long Republican support for unfair policies and use of divisive strategies. You reap what you sow.
For too long the Republican Party has sought to undo the laws and policies that made our country more just, more equal, and more inclusive.
We are truly at a critical point in our history. We have come too far and sacrificed too much to allow decades of hard-won progress to be erased by the extreme part of a divided minority party – especially when those extremists cling to ideologies that have long been rejected.
Republicans say they want to make America great again. I wonder when, exactly, they think America was at its best? What century, what decade, what year, would they have us return to?
It certainly wasn’t when people were enslaved. It certainly wasn’t when segregation was the law of the land. It certainly wasn’t when workers did not have the right to unionize. It certainly wasn’t when women did not have the franchise. It certainly wasn’t when LGBTQ individuals could not live their lives in an open manner.
Republicans cling to a fictional past. If you look honestly at our history, you understand that the distant past can be a comforting place only if one ignores dark chapters of prejudice and intolerance, discrimination and violence.
To suggest that America was somehow greater before we began to address our shortcomings is not just a failure of vision. It’s also a failure of courage. It reflects a fear of the future which by its nature is always uncertain.
That fear is antithetical to who we are as a people and who we are as a party. At our best, Americans – Democrats — are not prisoners of a fictional past. At our best, we know that what makes our nation exceptional is the potential for growth and renewal. At our best, we look to the future, embracing its possibilities and welcoming its challenges. So it has been at the finest hours of our history; and so it must be again.
At this moment, when the American system is being tested, we can’t take our democracy for granted. It’s fine to be frustrated with our government and dissatisfied with the status quo. I know I am.
But this is not a time for despair — this is a time for action. Our history has shown that we should never underestimate what is possible when Americans come together to shape the fate of our nation. And we must never forget the debt we owe those foot soldiers for justice – a debt that can only be repaid by focused action and consistent effort.
“Only when it is dark enough,” Dr. King said, “can you see the stars.”
Today, once again, it is dark enough. Today, once more, we can see the stars.
We have seen those stars in an inspiring resolve in women, in LGBTQ Americans, in teachers, in minority communities still grappling with injustice, and in students and citizens who have seen enough gun violence and who have marched and demanded fairness and opportunity.
This moment – this new era of American Engagement – must become a movement. It is time again for a period of renewal, of freedom and of equality.
Firmly rooted in the great history and tradition of the Democratic Party, we must do our part to build a future worthy of our highest ideals, a future that honors our party’s proud past and a future that we will be proud to entrust to the next generation.
This is our charge as 21stCentury Democrats. This is our time, this is our responsibility to do the difficult, but necessary, work of turning this time of doubt and challenge into a new era of American equality. This can — and must — be done.
I am ready for this fight —- I hope that you will join with me in this effort.