By Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.)
John Conyers, Jr.
There is no more important right in our society than the right to vote – it is the basis of all of our other rights. It is why generations of Americans have fought and died for the right to vote. And as a result of their sacrifices, today government and society as a whole has become more reflective of the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution.
Given the importance of this hard-fought right, the American people deserve an election system that not only protects but enhances every eligible voter’s ability to register, cast a ballot, and participate in our democracy. But rather than improve access to the ballot box, over the past year states have enacted laws which undermine this fundamental right.
Legislatures across the country have ended same day voter registration. Many have limited or eliminated early voting opportunities and severely restricted voter mobilization drives. And states have adopted restrictive photo identification requirements which exclude common forms of identification. These laws are barriers to voting and could disenfranchise millions of eligible minority, elderly, military, student, and low-income voters.
As the Ranking Members of the Committees on the Judiciary and House Administration, we believe strongly in Congress’ role as a guardian of voting rights. In light of this recent trend, Congress must do more to ensure all American citizens are able to freely exercise this precious right. That is why we have joined with Representative John Lewis, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn and many of our House colleagues in introducing the Voter Empowerment Act.
Congress has long acted on a bipartisan basis to protect and expand the right to vote. Since it originally passed in 1965, Congress has voted three times to enhance the Voting Rights Act, including reauthorizing the Act in 2006. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act which improved access to voter registration and provided protection from wrongful purges on voter rolls. And in 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act to enhance voters’ access to the ballot box. Protecting and enhancing the right to vote is a long-standing Congressional prerogative.
The Voter Empowerment Act protects the integrity of elections by improving eligible voters’ access to the ballot box. It modernizes voter registration using existing technology to automatically and permanently enroll consenting eligible voters while also making certain voter information is secure and accurate. It would also provide for online registration, allow same day voter registration at the poll, and simplifies the registration process for members of the military serving overseas. The bill also ensures the integrity of elections by providing funds to better train poll workers and by banning officials in charge of elections from participating in campaigns.
Additionally, this legislation protects voting rights by outlawing vote caging and deceptive practices designed to interfere with an individual’s right to vote through intimidation and misinformation. Voter caging is the practice of sending mail to voters at their addresses maintained on voter rolls, creating a list of the mail that is returned as undeliverable or without a return receipt, and using that list to purge or challenge a voters’ registrations on the basis that the voters on the list do not legally reside at their registered address. 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 official from challenging a voter’s eligibility based on voter caging and other questionable challenges. Majority-minority neighborhoods are often the target of this practice. And Vote caging disproportionately harms individuals who change addresses often such as students and service members.
These are common sense steps Congress can take to ensure every eligible voter who desires to participate can do so and that federal elections proceed in a fair and transparent manner. Given there is an election six months away, it is our hope that our colleagues on the Committees on the Judiciary and House Administration will demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process by holding hearings on the Voter Empowerment Act.
The loudest sound that exists in a democratic society is the voice of a voter in an election. Ensuring that every minority, every service member, every senior citizen, and every student has the right to vote should not be a partisan issue.
Rep. Conyers (D-Mich.) is the ranking Democrat on the the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Brady (D-Pa.) is the ranking Democrat on the House Administration Committee.