With all the negative news about voting rights in the news these days – voter ID, electoral college gerrymandering, challenges to the Voting Rights Act – it’s good to remember that positive change is still possible.
On two major occasions—during his election-night speech and second inaugural address—President Obama has highlighted the need for election reform. “By the way, we have to fix that,” he said on November 6 about the long lines at the polls in states like Florida. Shortly thereafter, the cause of election reform seemed to fall by the wayside, with more pressing events, such as the Sandy Hook shooting and the fiscal cliff, dominating the news. But Obama returned to the issue on January 21, saying “our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
Now the question is whether the Obama administration and Congress will actually do something to fix the shameful way US elections are run. There are smart proposals in Congress to address the issue. The most comprehensive among them is the Voter Empowerment Act, reintroduced today by Democratic leaders in the House, including civil rights icon John Lewis, and Kirsten Gillibrand in Senate.
The bill would add 50 million eligible Americans to the voter rolls by automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government agencies, adopting Election Day voter registration, and allowing citizens to register to vote and update their addresses online. (As Attorney General Eric Holder noted recently, 80 percent of the 75 million eligible citizens who didn’t vote in 2008 were not registered to vote.) It would also guarantee fifteen days of early voting to ease long lines, restore the voting rights of felons after they’ve served their time and ban deceptive ads aimed at suppressing voter turnout. “It’s got almost everything in there that we think is important,” says Eric Marshall of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The Voter Empowerment Act is supplemented by other worthwhile proposals in Congress. There is Senator Barbara Boxer’s LINE Act, which mandates national standards for a minimum number of voting machines and election workers in each precinct, and Senator Chris Coons’s FAST Act, which gives grants to states that conduct elections efficiently, modeled after Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have designated election reform as a top priority for the new Congress.
The public wants its elected representatives to address these problems. A post-election poll found that 88 percent of 2012 voters support new national voting standards. By nearly two to one, the public is more concerned about “eligible voters being denied the opportunity to vote” rather than “ineligible voters getting to vote.”
“The moment calls for something big,” says Marshall. “There’s a desire for an overhaul. It’s just a question of the will.”
It’s more than just will, since there’s sure to be fanatical opposition to a lot of this. I can only begin to imagine how Texas Republicans might react to any of this if it gets to the legislative process. But still, it would be nice to be on the offensive for awhile. With the Supreme Court set to review, and possibly gut, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act beginning this week, I’m trying to stay positive.