Stronger voter protections mean a stronger democracy

Aug 26, 2016
In The News

On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed landmark legislation — the Voting Rights Act (VRA) — into law. It knocked down barriers many states had put in place that disenfranchised minority voters.

The impact of the new law was immediate. Nearly a million African-Americans registered to vote in the first four years after the VRA was signed into law.

It was a watershed moment in the history of our nation that meant millions of Americans who were previously denied the right to have a say in the direction of their country finally had a seat at the table.

The protections provided in the VRA were hard fought. The new voting rights law was the culmination of many acts of civil disobedience and numerous marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

However, it was the March on Selma, led by my colleague U.S. Rep. John Lewis, in March 1965 that finally spurred Congress into action.

As 600 peaceful marchers attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, state troopers blocked their path and ordered them to disperse.

Movement leaders attempted to engage in a dialogue with the commanders of the state troopers. But words were met with tear gas. Officers with billy clubs moved into the crowd beating nonviolent protesters, all of which was televised.

In years past, I’ve had the honor of joining John in commemorating the sacrifice of the marchers in Selma. The most moving of the memorials was last year marking the 50th anniversary of the march.

Yet more than 50 years later, the struggle continues. Many states are enacting laws to make voting harder when governments have an obligation to protect the rights of citizens.

Early voting in many states is being rolled back. States are cutting funding for holding elections resulting in fewer polling places available to voters. We are also seeing instances of racial gerrymandering.

Voter ID laws are being implemented in states across the country. These laws severely impact minority, senior, and young voters.

Proponents of voter ID laws claim the need to stop voter fraud. But facts say otherwise. A professor at Loyola Law School looked at elections from 2000-14. In that time frame, there were just 31 incidents of voter fraud in more than 1 billion ballots cast.

Fortunately, federal courts are striking down many of these voter ID laws. But Congress needs to step up and pass a restoration of the VRA.

There is legislation waiting in the wings, including two bills that I have introduced.

My Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act would end restrictions many states impose on a person’s ability to vote absentee. Currently, 21 states restrict an eligible voter’s ability to vote absentee.

In San Diego, we enjoy “no excuse” voting by mail. But voters in many other states are required to provide an excuse to election officials in order to vote absentee. These requirements can be a doctor’s note, the details of a religious obligation, latest pregnancy status or details of a vacation destination.

My second bill, the Federal Election Integrity Act, would prohibit a chief election official of a state from serving on federal campaign committees or engaging in other political activity on behalf of federal candidates in any election over which the official has supervisory authority.

Recent elections have brought examples of leading state election officials with disturbing conflicts of interest. In some of these cases, chief state election officials have held official positions on the campaign committees of federal candidates, such as state committee chair.

Both these bills are included in the comprehensive legislation, the Voter Empowerment Act, which I am co-sponsoring.

To ensure equal access to the ballot and modernize our voter registration, the Voter Empowerment Act would:

  • Ensure online voter registration — San Diego County recently allowed online registration with successful results.
  • Allow same-day registration.
  • Encourage young people to vote with access to voter registration at universities.
  • Ensure military and overseas Americans’ ballots are counted.

This used to be a bipartisan issue. In 2006, I voted for the last reauthorization of the VRA signed by President George W. Bush. His father signed a renewal of the VRA on Aug. 26, 1992.

It can and should be a bipartisan issue again. It’s time we restore the scope and integrity of the Voting Rights Act. The more people who participate the stronger our democracy will be.

This editorial first appeared in Uptown News