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Austin-Hillery: We Can't Stop Fighting for Voting Rights

Voter Empowerment Act would address serious inherent issues within our system that were highlighted in 2012

We have just begun a new year, a new session of Congress and a new term for President Barack Obama. But as we look forward to 2013 and beyond, we cannot forget the lessons learned from the past few years.

The 2012 election season saw an abrupt reversal of America’s long tradition of expanding voting access. Voters were alarmed by the fact that more than 41 states had introduced, and in many instances passed, legislation that would make it harder for them to vote. These changes are now well-known — voter ID restrictions, cuts in early voting hours, reduced registration opportunities and executive actions making it harder to restore voting rights.

Advocates and experts sounded the alarm — in the media, the courts and elsewhere — to ensure no voter would lose their rights. The result: Far fewer voters were affected by these changes than originally predicted. The voters won.

But what now that the 2012 elections are over? Does that mean that the work is done and that problems that were so feared just a few months ago are behind us? On the contrary.

On election night, and again during his inaugural address, Obama affirmed his commitment to a voting overhaul. With the State of the Union next week, Obama has the opportunity to outline his ideas to fix America’s election system. Although most voters, thankfully, were able to cast ballots on Election Day, many of the problems inherent in our system still exist.

We are now at an important moment. We must heed the warnings of 2012 and make sweeping changes to our broken election system so the right to vote cannot be threatened again. Last month, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other congressional leaders responded to that call with the Voter Empowerment Act.

The VEA is a comprehensive bill that seeks to address the core problems that led to voter frustration and disfranchisement in 2012. The key component, based on a Brennan Center proposal, would modernize the voter registration system as we now know it. It would add more than 50 million eligible Americans to the rolls, cost less, increase accuracy and curb opportunities for fraud.

To start, the government must share more responsibility for voter registration. A modern system would provide automated, electronic registration in the states.

This means a citizen would be offered the opportunity to register or update their information when interacting with a government agency, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Social Security Administration.

In our increasingly mobile society, registration must also be portable — every time a voter moves, her registration moves with her. We also need fail-safe procedures at the polls and online.

That way, if a voter shows up on Election Day and isn’t on the rolls, or the information is incorrect, she can still cast a ballot that counts. By increasing the accuracy of the voter rolls, modernization also boosts election integrity and cuts costs. For example, after modernizing its system, Maricopa County, Ariz., saved more than $450,000 on registration costs in 2008 alone.

Beyond modernizing registration, the VEA tackles several other key problems with our system.

It addresses the issue of deceptive practices, adding greater penalties to those seeking to confuse and misinform voters with dubious information. It equalizes voting rights so that individuals with past criminal convictions, who have paid their debt to society, can vote in federal elections once their incarceration period has ended. And it provides greater protections to ensure that individuals with disabilities have fewer problems with voting.

If passed, the act would provide some of the most comprehensive changes in years — all with the purpose of making it easier for citizens to vote.

Lewis’ introduction of the VEA last month is momentous not just in substance but also in its historic significance at this particular time. It was introduced just after Martin Luther King Jr. Day and on the anniversary of the ratification of the 24th Amendment, which outlawed the use of poll taxes.

These two historic markers remind us that the road to equality and advancement of voting rights is not just something that happens in a moment and then disappears. Rather, the fight for voting rights is a continuing effort — and must remain so until we can ensure that all voters can exercise this precious right, free of any road blocks.

This is something that Lewis knows well. He has been in the battlefield fighting to protect voting rights for more than 40 years. It is a lesson we would all be well-advised to learn for the sake of our democracy.

Nicole Austin-Hillery is director and counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, D.C., office.

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