The right to vote is at the core of our identity as Americans, and the foundation of our democratic system – no matter how rancorous our political debates become. Our politics is a battle of ideals, and the ballot box is the playing field, open to all citizens.
We should do all we can to provide all citizens a fair opportunity to participate in our democracy – and in fact encourage them to do so. And this opportunity should be provided to all citizens regardless of the location they happen to live.
The first step of a truly representative democracy is participation.
This is why, on the eve of July Fourth and the heels of Immigrant Heritage Month, I was proud to introduce simple, commonsense legislation with House Democratic Chairman Joe Crowley to require that all newly sworn-in U.S. citizens be uniformly provided voter registration forms at naturalization ceremonies: H.R. 3113, the Citizenship Empowerment Act.
Currently, only some state and local election officials provide such materials to newly sworn-in citizens. The Citizenship Empowerment Act would require officials to provide voter registration forms in the citizenship packets provided to all newly sworn-in U.S. citizens, and allow election officials to set up informational tables outside naturalization ceremonies.
Many of us take for granted our citizenship and the rights that extolls. Look no further than the record low turnout of the 2016 election as proof.
As the son of an Irish immigrant and someone who has participated in naturalization ceremonies as a federal official, I see how patriotic new Americans are. They’ve demonstrated their commitment to this country, and they give thanks each day. They often endure tremendous hardships in pursuit of their dream of American citizenship and the freedoms that bestows.
I am proud to fight for protecting and expanding voting rights, both in the Pennsylvania state legislature and the U.S. Congress. Of course, voting rights are under historic attack, from legal attacks on the landmark Voting Rights Act, enacted at the height of the civil rights movement, to ALEC-inspired ballot initiatives and state measures to impose strict voter I.D. requirements – the modern day poll tax – despite sparse evidence of voter fraud across the country. Of course, who could forget our President’s baseless claims of the sort.
Providing a new citizen with a voter registration form at a naturalization ceremony is currently allowed, and in fact conducted in some states, but it is not required by federal law. This is an obvious disparity, wherein one new U.S. citizen can be sworn-in at one location and immediately given the opportunity to register to vote, while another may have to jump through multiple hoops to track down the necessary paperwork.
Abraham Lincoln, in his most notable speech, defined America as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our government exists because its people give it power. Without active participation from all its citizens, our government no longer functions the way the Constitution intended.
We can and must do better.