Protecting Our Precious Right to Vote

Thousands of residents await the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden for the annual Bridge Crossing Ceremony in Selma, Ala.,
Thousands of residents await the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden for the annual Bridge Crossing Ceremony in Selma, Ala., Sunday, March 3, 2013. Biden is traveling to Selma on Sunday to participate in the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. The event commemorates the 1965 march, which prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act and add millions of African-Americans to Southern voter rolls. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

On Sunday, it was an honor and privilege to stand alongside Rep. John Lewis and so many other civil rights heroes as we marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was only 48 years ago that Rep. Lewis led this march as a civil rights leader and risked his own life so that no American would ever again be denied the fundamental and precious right to vote. The march on that "Bloody Sunday" in 1965 became a turning point in the fight for voting rights.

But as inspiring as it was to re-enact that march, it is deeply troubling that in 2013, our work is not done and the need to continue this fight remains. According to NYU's Brennan Center For Justice, since 2011, 25 laws restricting voting rights have passed at the state level. These laws, ranging from imposing prohibitive voter ID requirements to reducing early vote periods, were passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors in the name of election integrity, even though there's no evidence of the sort of widespread voter fraud these laws purport to curb. And it's no accident that these laws are hitting the young, elderly and minorities the hardest.

In addition, just last week, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get approval from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting laws. The comments made by Justice Scalia are alarming and could not be more wrong. Voting is not an "entitlement" for any group of Americans, it is a fundamental right of all Americans.

If we've learned one thing from the recent attempts to disenfranchise voters around the country, it's that the Voting Rights Act continues to be a vital tool in the fight to ensure all eligible voters are able to cast their ballots. I can't express enough how important it is for the Supreme Court to uphold this vital protection.

But we mustn't stop there.

In January, I was proud to partner with Rep. Lewis, to re-introduce in the U.S. Senate the Voter Empowerment Act he authored in the House of Representatives. This bill would strengthen federal voting rights laws by modernizing voter registration, ensuring equal access to the ballot box for all Americans and prohibiting deceptive practices that predominantly disenfranchise minorities.

This bill would also:

Open access to the ballot box by:

Authorizing an online registration option as well as same-day registration

Providing additional tools to alleviate any additional burdens for people with disabilities

Requiring all universities that receive federal funds to offer and encourage voter registration to their students

Ensuring that ballots from all military personnel serving overseas are counted

Ensure integrity of process by:

Authorizing funds for training poll workers and setting standards for polling place practices

Requiring provisional ballots be available and counted at all polling places

Prohibiting voter caging and designating it as a felony

Protecting against deceptive practices and intimidation

Protect accountability of result by:

Establishing a national voter hotline to ensure timely reporting and corrective action of voting related issues

Setting standards for voting machines to ensure accurate tabulation and confirmation of voter intent paper copy verification

Reauthorizing the Election Assistance Commission to ensure that the highest standards are being met nationwide to guarantee fair elections

The Voter Empowerment Act will bring our voting laws into the 21st Century. With approximately 25% of eligible voters not registered and with as many as 200,000 Florida voters discouraged from voting in 2012 due to long lines, we should be easing restrictions on voting, not adding more burdens. As President Obama put it, we've got to "fix that." Ensuring that every vote counts is a cornerstone of our democracy, which is why it's my hope that this bill will be embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike and transcend the petty politics of Washington.