Since the 2010 election, Republicans have approved laws in more than a dozen states to restrict the right to vote. These laws include requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons and mandating government-issued photo identification to cast a ballot. The Brennan Center estimates that “these new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012,” and notes that “these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities.” States with restrictive voting laws now comprise 70 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency—including crucial swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The impact of such laws could be one of the sleeper issues that helps decides the 2012 election.
House Democrats responded to the wave of new voting restrictions by introducing a comprehensive new bill yesterday, “The Voter Empowerment Act,” aimed at expanding voting rights for all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. “The ability to vote should be easy, accessible and simple,” said Representative John Lewis, a civil rights hero who cosponsored the legislation with House Democratic whip Steny H. Hoyer, Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, Representative John Conyers and Representative Robert Brady. “Yet there are practices and laws in place that make it harder to vote today than it was even one year ago. The sponsors of this act believe we need to take action or risk losing the liberties we have enjoyed. We should be moving toward a more inclusive democracy, not one that locks people out.” (The Obama campaign also unveiled a new voter-education website today, gottavote.org.)
The Voter Empowerment Act is the first piece of federal legislation that would modernize voter registration and includes a number of important new federal standards. They include:
-Automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government institutions like the DMV, allowing them to register to vote online and easily update their voter registration information when they move and adopting Election Day registration nationwide (states with same-day registration have the highest turnout in the United States)
• Guaranteeing fifteen days of early voting before Election Day
• Granting the right to vote for ex-felons after they’ve served their time
• Banning deceptive ads aimed at suppressing voter turnout
• Preventing election officials like Katherine Harris from working for political campaigns
(The bill does not address new voter ID laws, which nine GOP states have passed since 2010, but Representative Keith Ellison introduced a bill last year that would prohibit election officials from requiring photo identification to cast a vote or register to vote.)
“The Democratic leadership is taking voting reforms very seriously,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “This legislation addresses the real problems in our system of elections, not the fictitious ones.” Indeed, since the 2010 election Republicans have breathlessly hyped the phantom menace of “voter fraud” in order to pass new voting restrictions that will reshape the electorate in the GOP’s favor, needlessly politicizing American elections and ignoring the real deficiencies in our electoral system.