On March 19, Rep. John Lewis, D. Ga., introduced the Voter Empowerment Act (H.R. 12), legislation that would combat voter exclusion, improve the administration of elections, and expand voter participation.
The Voter Empowerment Act (VEA) comes just a few weeks after more than 100 lawmakers traveled to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The legislation would modernize the country’s voter registration system by allowing online voter registration and expanding early voting. The VEA would also ensure the equitable allocation of polling place resources, and prohibit voter caging and other deceptive practices that deter people from exercising their fundamental right to vote.
The VEA is a comprehensive plan to help protect the constitutional right to vote, a right that was severely undermined in 2013 when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder.
“Across the country, states are attempting to exclude citizens from registering and voting on a scale unheard of since passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and brutal physical intimidation may be behind us, but today’s disenfranchisement tactics aimed at minority communities, while more subtle, are no less pernicious,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The VEA also includes provisions of the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA), legislation that would restore the right to vote in federal elections to millions of Americans with felony convictions who have completed their prison sentences.
An estimated 5.85 million American citizens are currently denied the right to vote due to a criminal conviction in their past. Four million of these people are out of prison – living and working in our communities, paying taxes and raising families, but remain disenfranchised.
Rooted in the Jim Crow era, felony disenfranchisement laws still disproportionately harm minorities. Such laws deny the right to vote to about one in every 13 African Americans in the U.S. Native Americans and Latinos, because of their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, are also disproportionately disenfranchised.
Studies have indicated that former prisoners who have voting rights restored are less likely to reoffend, yet the U.S. remains one of just a few western democracies that permits the permanent disenfranchisement of those with past felony convictions.
Rep. John Conyers, D. Mich., and Sens. Harry Reid, D. Nev., Ben Cardin, D. Md., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., also introduced the Democracy Restoration Act of 2015 (S. 772) as a standalone bill on March 18.
“State disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and the patchwork of laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system,” Cardin said in a statement. “Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for the restoration of voting rights.”
The Leadership Conference sent a letter urging passage of the DRA, writing, “In this country, voting is a national symbol of equality and full citizenship. Eliminating the voting rights of our citizens—rights for which many have given their lives—is against the very basic principles upon which our country was founded.”