Restoring the Voting Rights Act
There is no more fundamental right in our nation than the right to vote. Voting is the essential right that helps to protect all our other rights.
In many places in our country today, the right to vote is in danger. Forty-nine years ago, Congress approved the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This landmark law enforced the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and swept away decades of shameful state laws that sought to restrict access to the ballot to a favored few. Before passage of the VRA, some states employed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discriminatory obstacles to voting. The Voting Rights Act has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever approved by Congress.
Last year the Supreme Court undercut the VRA. In its 5-4 decision in Shelby County v Holder, the Court significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act by invalidating a key section of the law. This re-opened the door to state and local election laws that would unfairly limit the right to vote, especially among low-income and minority voters.
Since the Court’s ruling, a number of states with histories of discrimination have already moved forward with new voting laws. Texas approved a strict voter ID law that requires people to present a state-approved form of identification when they vote. The list of acceptable identification in Texas includes a driver’s license, a passport, a concealed handgun permit, or a military ID, but does not allow a student photo ID from any of Texas’ public universities or even an out-of-state driver’s license.
Voter ID laws are problematic for senior citizens who may no longer drive, as well as students who attend college outside their home state. The requirement to show ID is also a barrier for low-income individuals who may have trouble obtaining the underlying documents needed to obtain a photo ID.
The good news is that bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives to restore the Voting Rights Act. I have joined 170 of my House colleagues in cosponsoring the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 [H.R. 3899]. Unfortunately, the House Republican Leadership has so far refused to schedule this legislation for a vote. This needs to change.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Congress must take action to restore full protection to everyone access to the ballot.
Over the course of many decades, the United States has expanded the right to vote and knocked down barriers. When our nation was founded, voting was reserved to white, male property owners. In 1860, the 15th Amendment was ratified prohibiting federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In 1921, the franchise was extended to women. In 1971, the legal voting age was lowered to 18.
Along the way, we’ve eliminated discriminatory barriers such as literacy tests and poll taxes that once prevented millions of otherwise eligible Americans from voting.
In recent years, however, state governments across the country have enacted discriminatory laws to discourage some voters from casting a ballot. A 2011 study by the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice summarized the trend this way: “Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, often of a type that as many as one in ten voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popular innovation used by millions of Americans.... Still others made it much more difficult for citizens to register to vote, a prerequisite for voting.”
The 2012 elections underscore the need for concrete steps to protect every American’s right to vote. Purges of voter rolls, onerous voter ID requirements, limitations on early voting, and restrictions on voter registration made casting a ballot difficult or impossible for many Americans. There were also widespread reports across the country of voters forced to stand in line for hours in order to vote.
Ensuring that all Americans are able to vote is vital to the functioning of democracy. That’s why I have joined over 170 of my House colleagues in cosponsoring comprehensive voting rights legislation, the Voter Empowerment Act, in the current session of Congress.
The Voter Empowerment Act Solution
Voting is fundamental to the functioning of representative democracy, but like clockwork, every four years the American electorate endures another election cycle in which too many people are forced to wait hours in line in order to cast their ballot. Forcing people to stand for hours in line is a limit on the franchise, since many people can’t spend that much time away from work, school, or small children at home.
In Virginia, voters were still waiting in line to vote nearly four hours after the polls had officially closed at 7:00. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, hundreds of voters stood in line for hours to cast ballots. In other cases, delays occurred because polling stations ran out of ballots, or their machines broke down, or their poll workers were unprepared.
Because no one should have to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote, I have joined other House lawmakers in sponsoring the Streamlined and Improved Methods at Polling Locations and Early (SIMPLE) Voting Act [H.R. 50].
The SIMPLE Voting Act calls for three important solutions to the problem of long voting lines. The bill requires all states to provide for a minimum of 15 days of early voting in federal elections. Further, H.R. 50 requires states to ensure that each voting precinct has sufficient poll workers, voting machines and other resources to ensure that voting lines do not exceed one hour, whether on Election Day or during periods of early voting. Finally, the bill also requires states to have contingency plans in place to resolve situations in which long lines nevertheless develop.
(Updated October 1, 2014)