The Federal Government Must Do Better at Protecting Voting Rights

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Washington, August 24, 2018 | comments

Election Day is a little over two months away when millions of Americans will engage in our sacred civic duty of voting. Depending on what state you live in, it could be a positive experience or a frustrating one and you may have confidence in the results or you may not.

Many people do not realize that Article I section IV of our Constitution gives both states and Congress a role in election administration. Local control can be important and most state and local election officials do the best job they can for their communities.  

However, when there are fairness disparities and security issues the federal government should step up to make sure access to voting by eligible Americans is guaranteed and that our election results are accurate.

We in California are lucky. We benefit from early voting opportunities, plenty of polling places, and no-excuse voting by mail.

Unfortunately, in other states, this is not always the case. Some states are cutting funding for running their elections, resulting in fewer polling places. This means voters must travel farther to vote and usually wait in long lines when they get there.

However, one simple reform that could make elections cheaper and cut down on the long lines that frustrate and discourage people from voting.

Allow voting by mail for all voters. The problem is that almost half of all states place some sort of obstacle to getting an absentee ballot, such as age restrictions or requiring a doctor’s note, the details of a religious obligation, latest pregnancy status, or details of a vacation destination.

My Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act would end restrictions on a person’s ability to vote absentee, thereby opening up the convenience of casting a ballot by mail to millions of Americans.

In the most recent primary election in San Diego County, more than 70% of voters cast their votes by mail.  Three states – Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – conduct their elections exclusively by mail.

States that made it easier to vote by mail have seen an increase in voter turnout and a decrease in election administrative costs.

Garden County in Nebraska conducted its May primary election entirely by mail and saw turnout jump to 59%. The average turnout for other counties in Nebraska was less than half that.

A Pew study of Colorado’s all-mail election noted that election-related costs decreased by 40%.

As we consider how voting by mail has increased turnout, we must also look at increasing the faith in our electoral process. The legitimacy of our democracy depends on the fairness and integrity of those who are running our elections.

The Federal Election Integrity Act, which I introduced, would prohibit a state’s chief election official from serving on federal campaign committees or engaging in other political activities on behalf of federal candidates in any election over which that official has supervisory authority.

Someone who has vested interest in a federal campaign should not also be supervising the election in which that candidate runs.

In 2010, the House passed my Election Integrity Act on a bipartisan vote of 296-129. Unfortunately, the Senate failed to act on the bill before the end of the 111th Congress.

These are two simple reforms that Congress can do to expand the voting rights of the American people and restore faith in the process.

Not only is the federal government dropping the ball when it comes to voting rights, many states are just as guilty.

Thirty-four states require an ID to vote, which has been shown to discourage participation. A study by the Government Accountability Office found that strict ID laws can reduce turnout by two or three percent.

Voter ID laws hit low-income, minority, and elderly voters the hardest. These groups are least likely to be able to afford the cost of obtaining an ID.

Removing people from voter rolls is on the rise, especially in states with histories of racial discrimination.

While cleaning up voter rolls is necessary, the aggressive approach taken by many states is disturbing. It is even more disturbing that the Trump Administration has been encouraging such aggressive tactics. This is in stark contrast to the Obama Administration which fought these efforts and worked to protect voters’ rights.

One area where states are doing the right thing is working to prevent meddling in our elections.

Our intelligence agencies and many national security experts agree that Russia and other foreign actors are trying to influence our elections.

This is another area where the federal government should be helping, but again we are seeing the opposite.

In July, House Republicans brought an appropriations bill to the floor that lacked funding for election security. I supported an amendment to restore funding meant to help states ensure their voting technology is secure. Sadly, that amendment failed on a partisan vote.

Protecting the rights of the American people to vote should not be a partisan issue. Right now, the federal government is getting a failing grade when it comes to guaranteeing voting rights.

This must change. The legitimacy and future of our democracy are at stake.

This editorial first appeared in San Diego Uptown News.

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