Voting Rights

Voting Rights

The right to vote and to have your vote count is fundamental.  Voting is the essential right that helps protect all our other rights.  Without free and fair elections open to all eligible voters, our system of representative government grinds to a halt.  

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 100 of my House colleagues in cosponsoring comprehensive voting rights legislation, the Voter Empowerment Act, in the current session of Congress.

Ensuring Free and Fair Elections

On February 4, 2013, I joined over 100 other members of the House of Representatives in introducing comprehensive voting rights legislation, the Voter Empowerment Act [H.R. 12].  The right to vote is the bedrock right of our democratic system, and this bill takes effective steps to ensure free and fair elections.

Leading up to the 2012 elections, state laws were passed that made it harder for millions of eligible voters to register and cast a ballot.  As a result, thousands of Americans waited in unacceptably long lines and encountered a wide range of other problems, including inadequately trained poll workers and difficulty in securing provisional ballots when their registrations were challenged. 

In too many states, archaic and overly difficult voter registration requirements as well as restrictions on early voting limited voter participation.  In other places, deceptive electioneering practices were employed to discourage citizens from going to the polls.  

The Voter Empowerment Act is designed to modernize our voter registration system, reduce long wait times, ensure equal access to the ballot box for all Americans, prohibit voter caging and other deceptive practices, and make other critical reforms. 

Three SIMPLE Ways to Make Long Election Lines Shorter

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 February 7, 2013)


The Voter Empowerment Act Fast Facts

  • Approximately 3 million Americans tried to vote in the 2008 Presidential election but were turned away due to voting registration problems.
  • More than 24 million voter registration records in the U.S. – one in eight – are inaccurate, out of date, or duplicates.
  • States across the country have seen a wave of proposals that could make it harder to vote.  In 2011-2012, at least 180 restrictive bills had been introduced in 41 states.
  • Before the 2012 election, at least nine states introduced bills to reduce their early voting periods, and four tried to reduce absentee voting opportunities.  Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia succeeded in enacting bills reducing early voting.  In Ohio, a court restored early voting to the weekend before the election.
  • The Department of Defense Inspector General has repeatedly noted a persistent failure of the Federal Voting Assistance Program to provide consistently effective assistance to military voters, specifically identifying a lack of voter awareness of the existing resources to assist in the voting process.
  • During the 2012 election, some voters in Florida were required to stand in line for as long as eight hours.  It took Florida four days to announce the victor in the 2012 Presidential race.