At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week, civil and human rights advocates spoke to the need for reforming the antiquated and uneven process governing how Americans register and vote in elections.
The hearing, “The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election,” was chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., and comes after a 2012 election cycle in which states sought to enact new restrictive voting laws that would have made it even harder for some citizens to vote. As Leahy said in his opening remarks:
What we saw during the election shows that we were right to be concerned. Purges of voter rolls, restrictions on voter registration and limitations on early voting – which in previous elections enabled millions to vote– led to unnecessary and avoidable problems on Election Day. In places like Florida and Virginia, voters including senior citizens were required to stand in line for hours before casting a vote. In Ohio, provisional ballots were used in place of regular ballots in far too many precincts, particularly those with heavier minority populations, and some voters were wrongly denied the ability to cast ballots at all. Onerous and confusing voter identification requirements led to complications in places like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, and South Carolina. Throughout the country, misleading political advertising and robo calls worked to sow confusion and suppress the vote.
Leahy noted that these barriers seemed to have the biggest impact on African Americans, low-income communities, students, older Americans and members of the military.
Witnesses at the hearing included Nina Perales, vice president of litigation of The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), who spoke about the problem of voter purges in Colorado and Florida that overwhelmingly affected Black and Latino voters, including many who were U.S. citizens. “The results of this effort were wasted government resources, official embarrassment over targeting U.S. citizens for a voter purge, lawsuits, and voter confusion close to the election,” said Perales.
Former Republican Governor of Florida Charles Crist, Jr. testified about current Florida Governor Rick Scott’s efforts to roll back laws that Crist had implemented to improve voter registration and facilitate early voting. “Florida, which four years earlier was a model for efficiency, became once again a late night tv joke,” said Crist. “Voters who wanted to vote early were frequently subjected to lines of three and four hours – and as Governor Scott refused to take action to ease the lines, in some cases those lines extended to six and seven hours.”
Looking forward to needed reforms, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and lawyers from the ACLU submitted testimony that highlighted the important role the Voting Rights Act (VRA) played in empowering advocates to oppose many of the worst voter suppression efforts. In particular, they pointed to Section 5 of the VRA, which required states such as Texas and South Carolina to receive preclearance from the Department of Justice before implementing voter ID laws. “Without the protection of the VRA, especially Section 5, the threat to the right to vote would have been much greater,” said Henderson.
In addition to preserving and strengthening the VRA, advocates are urging Congress to pass reforms that would among other things: create uniform standards in federal elections; establish federal requirements on the use and criteria for distributing, casting, and counting provisional ballots; simplify absentee voting by eliminating mandatory excuse requirements; and re-enfranchise people with past convictions.