Action to Back Up Rhetoric on Voting Rights

I noted on Monday the promising sign that the president made ensuring voting rights among the small number of specific policy priorities he mentioned in his inaugural address. But we’ve heard that sort of talk before with little effect, as anyone who recalls the aftermath of the 2000 travesty can attest.

But maybe this time will indeed be different. The Nation‘s Ari Berman reports that comprehensive voting rights bills are already being introduced in the new Congress:

There are smart proposals in Congress to address the issue. The most comprehensive among them is the Voter Empowerment Act, reintroduced today by Democratic leaders in the House, including civil rights icon John Lewis, and Kirsten Gillibrand in Senate.

The bill would add 50 million eligible Americans to the voter rolls by automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government agencies, adopting Election Day voter registration, and allowing citizens to register to vote and update their addresses online. (As Attorney General Eric Holder noted recently, 80 percent of the 75 million eligible citizens who didn’t vote in 2008 were not registered to vote.) It would also guarantee fifteen days of early voting to ease long lines, restore the voting rights of felons after they’ve served their time and ban deceptive ads aimed at suppressing voter turnout. “It’s got almost everything in there that we think is important,” says Eric Marshall of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Voter Empowerment Act is supplemented by other worthwhile proposals in Congress. There is Sen. Barbara Boxer’s LINE Act, which mandates national standards for a minimum number of voting machines and election workers in each precinct, and Sen. Chris Coons’s FAST Act, which gives grants to states that conduct elections efficiently, modeled after Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have designated election reform as a top priority for the new Congress.

Nobody expects anything this sweeping to get past the Republicans who control the House and have the power of the filibuster (even if it’s somewhat restrained by reforms) in the Senate. But as Berman notes, there are some signs the state-level Republicans who waged the War on Voting during the 2012 cycle are beginning to shrink at the political damage their posture has created, so perhaps a consistent push for an entirely different level of national voting rights can produce some momentum even in Congress.

We’ll also, of course, have to wait and see what the U.S. Supreme Court will do to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If the worst happens, it will be a setback for voting rights, but also perhaps a spur to greater determination to get rid of restrictions on the franchise at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.