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.
For example, 9 million voters couldn’t vote in 2008, according to MIT, because of problems with their voter registration (13 percent), long lines at the polls (11 percent), uncertainty about the location of their polling place (nine percent) or lack of proper ID (seven percent). An additional 51 million eligible Americans are not registered to vote, notes Demos. “This represents almost one in four citizens, disproportionately low-income voters, people of color, and younger Americans,” writes Liz Kennedy. Of the 146 million Americans registered to vote in 2008, 131 million voted—a turnout rate of 90 percent. So the biggest problem in US elections isn’t that people aren’t voting, but that they aren’t registered to vote.
Unfortunately, this problem is getting worse, not better, as we head closer to the 2012 election. Crucial swing states like Florida have cracked down on voter registration drives, forcing non-partisan groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote to abandon their voter registration efforts (the Department of Justice has objected to Florida’s law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act). Eighty-one thousand fewer voters have registered in Florida in 2012 compared to the same period four years ago, according to an analysis by the New York Times. Voter registration in Florida's communities of color has grown about half as fast as it has in North Carolina since 2008, notes a new study by Facing South. Nationally, the number of black and Hispanic registered voters has declined by 5 percent since 2008, according to the Washington Post, including 28 percent in New Mexico and 10 percent in Florida, the result of people leaving their homes because of the economic collapse or not being able to register to vote due to new voting restrictions.
Wendy Weiser notes that the main ideas included in the Voter Empowerment Act are common-sense reforms that have been adopted on a bipartisan basis in a number of states. They would make US elections more convenient, more efficient, more participatory, more secure and less expensive—virtues that all sides should be able to agree on. “These are not partisan hot-button issues,” Weiser says. Or at least they shouldn’t be. Non-partisan voting rights groups like the Brennan Center, Common Cause, Demos, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote have endorsed the effort. The bill has approximately 100 Democratic supporters in the House, but so far no Republicans have signed on.
Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.