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Efforts to improve election administration and address the long lines that greeted voters on Election Day shifted to Capitol Hill on Thursday as House and Senate lawmakers unveiled related bills.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., introduced legislation that would establish a competitive-grant program within the Justice Department to provide states with incentives to improve their voting processes.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., quickly pledged to co-sponsor the bill, citing the “embarrassment” that long lines caused Virginia last week.
“In Prince William County, folks waited for up to three hours. In Chesapeake, Va., folks waited up to four hours. It was remarkable that it was five days after the fact before we even knew the results in Florida,” Warner said on the Senate floor.
The problems were “profoundly concerning and upsetting to me,” Coons told reporters at a briefing. “That a dozen years after the debacle of the 2000 election, that we should still have these challenges and problems all across the country ... I thought it was time to do something.”
His bill is a multipronged effort to improve access to the polls. It asks states to create flexible registration opportunities, emphasize early voting periods, promote no-excuse absentee voting, provide foreign language assistance, improve accessibility for disabled voters, train election officials, audit polls with long wait times and create contingency plans for voting during natural and other disasters.
The legislation, which so far does not authorize a specific dollar amount, was styled after the grant program that the Obama administration used in its Race to the Top education program.
Coons said that in preparing the measure he had spoken with voters and election officials in his home state, including Democratic Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock. He declined to say whether he had consulted the White House, but he noted that President Barack Obama referred to voting problems in his victory speech, declaring, “We have to fix that.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced that he intended to introduce a measure to shorten wait times at polling places. The bill, which has 35 interested co-sponsors, would require states to have early-voting periods of at least 15 days. Though it was developed separately from the Senate bill, Miller’s office said he looked forward to working with Coons on the issue.
It was unclear Thursday how much bipartisan support the measures would garner. There were frequent disputes over ballot-access measures during the recently concluded election cycle. Most legal challenges pitted GOP- controlled state legislatures concerned about voter fraud against Democrats worried about voter suppression. Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas passed voter identification measures that were blocked by courts from taking effect before the elections. A federal court likewise delayed changes to Ohio’s early voting period after the Obama campaign sued.
The last large-scale congressional effort to address state-level election administration was during the aftermath of the 2000 election meltdown, when lawmakers created a bipartisan federal agency to dole out more then $3 billion to states for improved election administration. As Roll Call reported, the Election Assistance Commission now sits without a single commissioner, executive director or general counsel and has not been able to conduct official business for almost two years. Congressional Republicans have consistently opposed efforts to retool the commission and have called for its elimination when asked to recommend or confirm commissioners.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., last year led a successful effort in the House to eliminate the commission that died in the Senate. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., has since 2001 been gathering support for a Constitutional amendment that grants an “individual right to vote” and the congressional authority to create a uniform voting system, but all of the bill’s 51 co-sponsors and interested co-sponsors are Democrats.
Coons and Warner acknowledged that any successful effort would need bipartisan support.
Coons said the newly proposed “simple, clear grant system” would be a narrowly tailored way for Congress to play an “appropriate federal role” in catalyzing improved election administration at the state level.
“This bill is to chart a different path forward that tries to incentivize states to get past some of the partisanship of voter ID, voter access, voting days and move forward,” Coons said.
Warner in his floor remarks twice emphasized the “relatively small” nature of the proposed program.
“I don’t want us to move past the election too quickly and not deal with the very real and ongoing problems of voter registration, voter access and voter rights,” Coons said. “I think we need to continue to work responsibly across the aisle to deal with this.”
Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.