June 28, 2012
By Marc H. Morial
“With a pivotal presidential election just six months away, we must do all we can to ensure free and fair elections and that everyone can vote.” Voter Empowerment Act fact sheet
Thanks to rising citizen outrage and efforts like the National Urban League’s “Occupy the Vote” campaign, the voter suppression movement is facing mounting resistance. As we reported several weeks ago, voter suppression laws in Florida designed to purge voter rolls and make it more difficult to register voters, have now been challenged by the Justice Department. There is also a new bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that takes direct aim at some of the most egregious voter suppression tactics being employed or considered in dozens of states throughout the nation.
These tactics include elimination of Election Day and same-day registration, reductions in early voting periods and absentee voting opportunities, and new restrictions on voter registration drives. These measures could prevent millions of eligible voters from exercising their constitutional right to vote and they disproportionately affect our service members, people with disabilities, minorities, young people, seniors and low income Americans.
As we approach the 2012 presidential election, we should be encouraging more, not less, voting by the American people. In the 2008 presidential election, about 3 million Americans were turned away from the polls due to voter registration problems. And an estimated 51 million Americans eligible to vote are not registered. Still there are those who are determined to keep even more people from voting. This is a travesty, it’s un-American and it dishonors the sacrifice of generations of voting rights foot soldiers who fought and died to guarantee every citizen the right to vote.
Sponsored by Representatives John Lewis (Ga.), John Conyers (Mich.), Steny Hoyer (Md.), James Clyburn (S.C.), and Robert Brady (Penn.), the Voter Empowerment Act (H.R. 5799), would fight back by ensuring equal access to the ballot box, protecting the integrity of voting systems and mandating accountability for fair elections. Among its provisions, the bill calls for
• Modernizing the voter registration system, including allowing for on-line registration;
• Requiring universities that receive federal funds to encourage students to register;
• Setting standards for operating voting machines;
• Simplifying the registration process for overseas military service men and women;
• Authorizing same-day registration;
• Empowering the Election Assistance Commission to ensure high standards and fair elections and
• Removing barriers for people with disabilities
The Voter Empowerment Act is the most serious attempt to date by Congress to protect voters from the recent onslaught of restrictive voting measures that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to register or vote. In describing the bill in a recent op-ed in the Hill newspaper, Congressmen Conyers and Brady write, “The bill declares that a voter shall not be denied the right to vote unless the challenge is corroborated by independent evidence, and it also prohibits persons other than election officials from challenging a voter’s eligibility based on voter caging and other questionable challenges.”
John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, who was beaten during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march in Selma, Ala. added, “The ability to vote should be easy, accessible and simple…We should be moving toward a more inclusive democracy, not one that locks people out.” We agree. Occupy the Vote. Pass the Voter Empowerment Act now.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.